Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

As it's Labor Day weekend, the new school year is no doubt on the brain. So I began thinking about movies about school. The results receive a failing grade, probably because in assessing teachers and students on film the typical stereotypes abound.

Teachers are usually depicted either as overly inspirational figures or as discontents abusing their power. Rarely do they break that bell curve. And students are obviously discontents, rarely depicted studying or doing homework. Whether it's high school or college, school is usually just a location for a scene to take place, for one character to speak to another in a hallway, on the way to somewhere more exciting.

Not that it would be so interesting to make academics the center of the story, though it does sometimes occur in films like October Sky and Stand and Deliver. No doubt dramatic events occur in schools every day, but most of these are quiet, individual moments of achievement rather than a large visual action that film demands.

Whenever I see a large school gesture on the screen I cringe. For example, do I really want to be taught, or have my child taught, by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society? I've always empathized with the young Ethan Hawke character in that film. He's appropriately terrified of this teacher who recites Shakespeare with a John Wayne accent. Even at the film's climax, when the boys stand on their desks to honor Williams, I can't help but think of how long they're going to stand there before it just gets awkward.

The best film that I know of that captures both the practice and the price of education would be 1983's Educating Rita. Based on a stage play by Willy Russell, who also wrote the screenplay, the story follows a working class British hairdresser named Rita, played by Julie Walters, who attends a university tutorial with a burnt-out literature professor played by Michael Caine. Rita, understandably, wants to rise in her station in life, not so much economically but culturally. She wants to "talk fancy like the rest of you," she tells Caine.

What's so striking in the film is Caine's resistance to teach her what she wants. He enjoys her blue-collar interpretation of the classic novels he teaches. In fact he prefers her blunt thinking on the material to the tired academic arguments every other traditional student makes. This is important because here we have a teacher not discontented with his student or teaching but with the system in which he's dedicated his life.

He does end up teaching Rita the way she wants, but he warns her that having that education won’t necessarily improve her life. In fact, he says, it will make life harder. She’ll question more, he warns, and she'll ultimately see that her same problems will exist just in a different form.

I like Educating Rita because it challenges the role of teachers and of students, rather than simply falling back on the standard clichés of why learning and school are important. I don't doubt that those clichés are also true (else they wouldn’t be clichés), but in quality films I expect more. I expect the conventions to be challenged.

Maybe film is just the wrong medium in which to capture the lives of teachers and students. The monotony of the school year, as well as the arch of progress or the lack thereof, probably fits better on the television screen.

What is a school day but an episodic version of a TV show in which we regularly see certain characters and learn with them? School felt real on past cinematic shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. Even the new show Community gets the flavor of a community college right while lampooning and ridiculing the institution.

But perhaps I’m looking at school on film all wrong. Perhaps less realism in films about school is more appropriate. We all know from experience that school can be long and hard enough in reality. At the end of a long week, students and teachers need to let it all go, which is why the world of school might be best served up for laughs.

Which is why I'm going home to watch Animal House for the 300th time. Have a great school year everyone.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010