ABOUT A TEACHER – movie review

ABOUT A TEACHER
Hanan Harchol Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hanan Harchol
Screenwriter: Hanan Harchol
Cast: Leslie Hendrix, Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Aurora Leonard, Kate Eastman, Yan Xi, Hanan Harchol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/26/20
Opens: April 7, 2020

About a Teacher

As a guy who spent a 32-year career in the high school classroom, I sometimes wondered why there are far more movies about police than about teachers. Think of “Training Day,” “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Untouchables,” and the best of all, “Serpico.” After all only a small fraction of us have had careers in law enforcement and most of us were never in real trouble, but we’ve all been in classrooms and we should we fascinated by stories about teachers, comparing the movie pedagogues with our own. Wait. On second thought, there are at least one hundred movies about classrooms that are considered among the best, including “Election,” “Chalk,” “The English Teacher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “School of Rock,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” So maybe our own experience in classrooms is mirrored by quite a number of shows about our favorite mentors and our worst nightmares.

Now comes what the marketing people might call a feel good movie. It’s “About a Teacher,” and though happily not a documentary, it follows the experience of an award-winning instructor who felt like quitting during his first year in an inner-city school. Since his favorite word is “perseverance,” he struggled through the first two years, was almost fired before beginning even a second semester, and went on to guide students into using the imparted knowledge to win many thousands of dollars in awards from festivals and the like.

Writer-director Hanan Harchol also has a bit role of “Mr. Caldwell,” an assistant principal who in real life is the great man who helped create careers of his rambunctious students in a tough school. The title character is played by Dov Tiefenbach, known to his students as Mr. Harchol, or just Mister, or Mr. H. At the same time Harchol’s fellow teachers call each other Mr. or Ms., rarely by first names, which in my experience might have been the case before the mid-1960s when we had to wear jackets and ties but now just first names and a t-shirt are de rigueur. The current dress code is good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was good enough for me—and for Hanan.

You would think that Hanan Harchol would have no problem even from the first day since, after all, he is not teaching algebra, which might be of little interest to teens in almost any high school, but instructs them in film making. Here the kids have something to do with their hands. They don’t sit still facing the front of the room listening to long lectures or trying to participate in subjects they can’t really get their minds into. Instead, Harchol faces the indifference so dismaying in “Precious,” in which that title character, sitting in a history class where students are simply talking to each other and ignoring the instructor, bops a kid on the head with a notebook, demanding that the whole class pay attention.

Because of the discipline problems facing Harchol during his first year, he gets into frequent tiffs with Ms. Murray (Leslie Hendrix), the department chair, who could easily fit into a role as Ilsa Koch, the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald concentration camp. She will turn out to have a heart of gold, though, which makes us recall that people wear masks to cover their real feelings and attitudes.

So the kids are a problem. When one of them refuses to turn off his computer, Harchol moves to turn it off himself. The youngster grabs him by the wrist, inflaming the educator who yells “Get out,” notwithstanding that at a previous time, several of his pupils are roaming around the hall leading to an admonishing by an administrator for sending someone out of the classroom without supervision—which could make him lose his license. Seeking a mentor (not realizing that Ms. Murray has been just that all along), he consults a young, attractive Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard) whose algebra class quietly works at their desks, seeking to learn what she does to get such attention. After receiving feedback from her, he is startled to hear her ask him a key question: “Do you like the kids?” Aha. A genuine affection for your charges will be felt by them, and you’ve won half the battle.

I related strongly to the discussions in the faculty lounge, which features the burnt-out Mr. McKenna (Tyler Hollinger), whom Ana Martinez calls an a**hole. There is considerable grousing when the department chair conducts a meeting, telling the men and women about the demands of the state: lesson plan every day, suitable for inspection. Call each parent of every failing student. Keep the pace: do not fall behind, spending too much time on one project.

Inevitably Harchol cannot avoid taking his problems home, where his sometimes bored wife has to listen to her husband’s tales of woe when all she wants to do is to get some sleep. But when they clash on whether to start a family, you might think the marriage can go belly-up just as Harchol may get fired from his job. Harchol notes several times that he received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools, which makes one wonder why he did not opt to get a gig at least in a community college. It’s not as though he carried with him a liking for teens, so what’s the deal? Since the story is based closely on real life, I would like to know the answer, especially since hell, the maximum pay right now in New York City public schools, one of the highest paying municipalities in the country, is $119,000, but you have to work 25 years and have a Master’s plus 60 credits to get there. A lawyer getting a fairly decent job right out of law school can make that at age twenty-four. So can a pharmacist. So can a lot of people.

Harchol deals with individual problems of some of his charges, including one girl who had been “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend from the age of five to the age of nine, and another who sleeps in class because he has two jobs after school and has to look after a child, though he is only seventeen. In the end comes a Hallmark statement by Ms. Murry, who notes (decades before the coronavirus business), that we have little control over many things, but that “the only thing we have is the ability to give away.”

If you do not expect the movie to be as lively as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or chaotic and violent like “To Sir With Love,” or as wacky as “Teachers” (an escaped mental patient serves a day as a substitute), or as horrific as “Never Let Me Go,” you should have a good time enjoying the inevitable rise of Harchol from a miserable failure to brilliant educator. No, that’s not a spoiler: you already know the trajectory. It’s quite well played by Dov Tiefenbach, though at the age of 38 he seems long in tooth to perform as a beginning teacher. He has particularly interesting conversations in a coffee shop with his dad (Tibor Feldman), who makes fun of his son’s gig entertaining restaurant guests with his guitar but is proud of the lad’s choice to be a teacher.

The students, who may be improving much of the dialogue, were actual pupils of Harchol who came back to play themselves at age seventeen. As their teacher said to them many time, “good job.” This is Hanan Harchol’s freshman film, though he may be known to some at the helm of the short, animated TV episodes of “Jewish Food for Thought.”We look forward to his next venture.

112 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

LUCE – movie review

LUCE
Neon/Topic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/29/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Luce Movie Poster

Every time I think that the high schools in which I taught are pretty OK, not great but certainly not blackboard jungles, I get a wake-up call that says, “Your schools are OK: but compared to what?” Then I come across this high school in Arlington, Virginia which looks nice and clean with grounds to match and students that really pay attention in class and one teacher who has given the teens fifteen years of her life, sees parents after class, and discusses education with the principal. So I think, “I wish I could have been assigned to this Arlington city High School.” Then my envy of the place gives way when I find out that this school may be in prosperous Arlington but it could in no way deserve real estate in Shangri-La. Things are happening therein that would threaten a parent’s trust of her son, a teacher’s dedication to her students, and would start warfare enveloping teacher vs. principal, mother vs. father, student vs. teacher, and would involve questions of race and class. That Julius Onah, who adapted the movie from a play by JC Lee featured in New York’s Lincoln Center leaves ambiguity not only in the ending but throughout the proceedings is a good thing. In fact without the ambiguity’s causing us in the audience to pause and think deeply about the film, we would be shut off from any thought of discussion save for “Where should we go now for our frappuccino?”

“Luce,” which is the name of the principal character played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., means “light” and light indeed brightens the upper-middle-class home of Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and her husband Peter (Tim Roth). Unable to have children of their own, they seek out a potential adoptee from the most troubled place imaginable, a seven-year-old who has already been tormented more than almost any American adult by growing up in war-torn Eritrea. With a back-story that involves years of psychological help and any other form a rescue that his adoptive parents have tried, Luce attends a school that gives his room to develop and express his natural talents and is lucky—or maybe not–to have as his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who pushes those in her charge so strictly that she has been called a bitch. For reasons that a movie audience will find ambiguous, she snoops into Luce’s locker, finding illegal fireworks among the notebooks, confiscates them, and, instead of telling Prinicpal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) calls in Luce’s parents. To add to her suspicions, Harriet has graded the student’s essay on the subject, name a historical figure and write a paper on how you would act in his place. Luce uses the example of Frantz Fanon, whose “Wretched of the Earth” advises violence to get overthrow colonialists. Luce is virtually labeled a terrorist, and when in addition, Harriet hears a rumor that Luce is involved in the rape of Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), the stage is set for verbal, and later physical warfare, involving students, teacher, principal and parents.

What motivates Harriet to go after this one student, a young fellow who excels in debate, track, and can hold an audience of parents in thrall when addressing them in the auditorium? We in the audience are left with an unspoken motif that Harriet, who is on the one hand demanding outstanding work especially for marginalized teenagers, is envious of Luce’s parents, who appear to be upper middle class, who presumably did not have the stresses affecting Harriet, who has lived with her emotionally disturbed sister Rosemarie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). In fact in the film’s most energetic scene the entire school must cope with Rosemarie’s psychotic break as she goes ballistic, removes all of her clothes, and is carted away by the police.

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play parents who must have had to cope with the frustrations and joys of bringing up a child with a damaged psyche, their most compelling scene involving an argument about how to deal with accusations that their young man has committed an act of minor terrorism. Should he be exposed for what he may be—the emphasis on may be—or should they lie and give him an alibi that would counter charges against him? Still, the film belongs to Harrison, who has appeared in films and TV since his minor role in 2013 in “12 Years a Slave,” but who, at the actual age of twenty-five is too old to convince us that he is a student in high school rather than going for a graduate degree.

Nigerian-born director Jonah Onah, whose “The Cloverfield Paradox” finds scientists testing a device to solve the energy crisis, moves ahead with this intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping tale with metaphoric possibilities that feed into the current sophomoric racism of our president, who does not have a racist bone in his body.

This is an emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying meditation on racism, parental pressures, and teachers’ expectations.

109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+