I thought I had a great idea for this week’s movie review. I thought I’d write about Larry Crowne and Bad Teacher as samples of movies about teaching — the profession I spent my life pursuing. I knew that these current movies have done relatively well at the box office — they were 5th and 4th, respectively last weekend — even though they got mostly negative reviews. But I thought I could push out from them to a conversation about really good teacher movies.
We can have that conversation here, but first I have to say that my idea rated a D-. It’s not that Larry Crowne is unwatchable, but that it’s so mediocre that it’s only worth watching when it’s all that’s on the Lifetime network and you have insomnia and hope to be lulled to sleep. And then there’s Bad Teacher, which got some positive comments by those who dislike the sentiment of teacher movies like Larry Crowne. But Bad Teacher is so crude, mean, and vindictive that it makes Larry Crowne look like an enactment of Plato’s Symposium.
Are teachers by now so despised for their mindless idealism that viewers would prefer a foul-mouthed, child-hating misfit like the junior high school teacher played by Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher to the weary but still accessible community college professor played by Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne?
And are students in classrooms as resistant to the power of learning as those in Julia Roberts’ classroom who finally, through some process that we do not see, become reasonable graduates of her course? Or are they all grade grubbers like the little nerds in Cameron Diaz’s room where they watch movies (about heroic teaching) while she sleeps off a hangover? Surely there are better films about teaching and learning as antidotes to these depressing views?
I would recommend a few here to balance the accounts for my profession. I suppose that the most convincing portrayal of real teaching I’ve seen in the last fifteen years is shown in the French movie, The Class (2008). There a real teacher portrays his attempts to teach French to a class of diverse and sassy students in his inner-Paris high school.
For those who prefer more uplift, there is Robin Williams’ portrayal of a busy community college teacher and counselor in Good Will Hunting (1998). Williams had his perpetual hysteria under control in that film, and so his performance bettered the portrayal of the heroic teacher he gave ten years earlier in The Dead Poet’s Society (1989). There he played just the kind of adolescent crowd-pleaser that I learned to distrust as a student and as a teacher.
Most public-school teachers and many college professors are women, however, and it seems difficult for film-makers to imagine female teachers who are both effective and physically presentable. They seem drawn to the glamour of a Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz, and that glamour distorts the work that so many women do in education. And so I think that the best portrayal of a woman teacher is to be found in another recent movie from abroad.
I am thinking of An Education (2009). There Olivia Williams as “Miss Stubbs,” a concerned teacher at the school of Jenny Mellor (played by Carey Mulligan), offers her student a chance to redeem her leaving school for a fling with a charming bounder. The course of make-up study and tutoring that Miss Stubbs offers presents a believable example of good teaching.
As for contemporary American films about women teachers, I am at a loss to find one in recent years, though I could find my way back to Julia Roberts–a pretty-good college teacher in the not-too-bad The Mona Lisa Smile (2003). I do have some favorites from the distant past, though. I thought Sandy Dennis hit the right note as a first-year teacher in a Manhattan high school in Up the Down Staircase (1967), for example. And Joanne Woodward and Estelle Parsons did the same in Rachel, Rachel (1968).
Are there more good teacher movies to recommend? Without applying for entrance into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where all the great actors and actresses of the British Isles teach in their inimitable ways?