And that's the beauty of "Chalk," a low budget indie mockumentary out of Austin, Texas - it's a real-life answer to those sappy inspirational melodramas that have monopolized the "teacher movie" genre over the decades. Writers Mike Akel (who also directed) and Chris Mass (who also starred) are veterans of the public school system, churn out one of the finest valentines to the profession ever crafted, precisely because they refuse to sugarcoat the behind-the-scenes struggles of our educators. And yet, curiously, this very sense of dry, harsh realism allows "Chalk" to out-inspire such sappy (if enjoyably so) works as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Dead Poets Society" - we care more for the characters here because they're undeniably real.
Filmed in a local high school, with genuine teachers and students in supporting roles, "Chalk" breathes a fresh authenticity into its comedy. We follow three teachers and one administrator over the course of one school year: Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) is the nervous, introverted, and highly un-authoritative history teacher stumbling his way through his first year on the job; Mr. Stroope (Mass) enters his third year pushing toward the single goal of winning the coveted Teacher of the Year award (never mind if he neglects to actually teach his students anything); Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) is the gym teacher (totally not gay, she's quick to remind us) whose pushiness when it comes to rules and regulations puts her off with the other teachers; and Mrs. Reddell (Shannnon Haragan), the former teacher recently promoted to assistant principal who discovers the new job isn't at all what she wanted. All four leads are utterly convincing in their roles, and the very way they handle themselves both in the story proper and the confessional asides (captured via webcam) shows how deeply committed they are to bringing their characters to life in the most complete way possible. (Much of the film was also improvised, and the cast never misses a beat.)
What's important to remember in all of this is just how absent the film is of any forced dramatics. There are no big doings, no phony plot twists. The biggest conflict comes when Mr. Lowrey curses at a kid and calls him "a horrible student," a very real incident that winds up haunting the rookie teacher. Other plot points that could be taken as key turning points involve the aforementioned Teacher of the Year contest (in which Mr. Stroope goes overboard in self-promotion) and a cute spelling bee in which teachers must tackle student-approved slang terms (hilariously presented here as a brief, keen parody of such documentaries as "Spellbound"). Such moments have roots deeply planted in what appears to be a drab ordinariness, but remember, in such ordinariness is where we often find the most important parts of our everyday lives.
Those two plot points also serve as a contrast between the male leads. As Mr. Stroope pushes further to win his prize, his attempts at being "the cool teacher" grow more and more obvious in their shallowness. Mr. Lowrey, meanwhile, uses the spelling bee as a way to finally connect to his students, and damn it if by the end we're not rooting for this nervous fella to win big with the kids.
In fact, Mr. Lowrey is the glue of the film. While the others' problems offer honest portraits of life as a public school employee, be it through biting comedy or painful personal conflict, it's the potential rise of Mr. Lowrey that keeps us going. An opening title card informs us that half of all new teachers quit by their third year, and we wonder if Mr. Lowrey will be one of them. His first day of school (cleverly captured on the first day of filming, to help cement the awkward tone between teacher and students on the set) is a train wreck, and he often confesses that he's not cut out for the job. But will he return for a second year? The journey to that answer is one of the most involving character paths to hit the screen in recent memory.
There is also a pinch of romance as Coach Webb takes a liking to Mr. Lowrey - the film even allows itself to back off from its mockumentary format to toy with a delightfully frothy little daydream sequence - but watch what the movie does with such an idea. It never uses the potential romance to drive the story in any way. It's just sort of there in the corners, never quite launching, just the way such things are in real life.
For all its reality, "Chalk" is also incredibly funny. This is a brilliant collection of performers, and all handle the little details required for improvisational mockumentary with the greatest of ease. Some jokes are very job-specific, delicious in-jokes meant to tickle the educators of the world, while others retain a special broadness that will connect with any viewer. Akel, his cast, and editor Bob Perkins have found a perfect rhythm for comedy, and the way they collectively work the pacing as the story progresses is so masterful that this movie could work as a how-to class for aspiring comic actors and filmmakers.
After months on the festival circuit, "Chalk" was finally picked up for limited distribution by Morgan Spurlock, who's using his "Super Size Me" success to help boost the visibility of other small-time filmmakers working outside the Hollywood system. And what a find. "Chalk" is one of the best movies of the year, a special gem of a film that demands a giant audience.
Video & Audio
Considering its indie roots and its intentionally rough "documentary" look, "Chalk" looks pretty darn great in this anamorphic widescreen transfer. Shot on video, the image is clean and crisp. The dialogue-heavy soundtrack sparkles in Dolby 5.1, with music and effects properly balanced. Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.
The film opens with an introduction (1:08) from Spurlock, who tells how a family packed with teachers led him to appreciate the profession.
Akel, Mass, and Spurlock team up for an informative and very chatty commentary track.
"The Chalk Journey" (7:31) uses interviews taken from the film's New York premiere and brief behind-the-scenes clips to cobble together a quick but enjoyable making-of featurette.
Members of the cast and crew provide nine essays on "My Most Inspirational Teacher." These are deeply personal and often profoundly moving - if all too short - tributes. (Most telling regarding the impact these teachers had on their students? Most characters in the film were named after them.)
Two mock PSAs - "The Substitute" (1:52) and "The Dress Code" (:54) - are amusing, while the "Broken Dreams" short film (4:59) is an overlong bit of silliness I'm guessing was filmed during some down time on the set.
The film's theatrical trailer (1:53) is also included. A preview for the arts-in-schools documentary "Class Act" and a very clever anti-piracy PSA play as the disc loads; you can skip over them if you choose.
I'm absolutely in love with this film, and I bet you will be, too. Highly Recommended.