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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Schooled
Schooled
Evolution // Unrated // December 13, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $25.00 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Chris Neilson | posted February 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Viewing Brooks Elms' Schooled is a frustrating experience because the film shows great potential, but is tripped up by production errors that are so disruptive that the viewer may not be willing to do the work necessary to appreciate the film's subtleties. The result is that this film can seem very bad on a cold viewing, but gets better with repeated viewings after working through the extras. Perhaps regrettably, most viewers who don't immediately like this film aren't going to spend the time necessary to warm up to it.

Fred Hill (Daniel Kucan) is a burned-out high school history teacher with a troubled marriage. He's frustrated at work by uncooperative students, and at home by his wife Luna (Alysia Reiner) who desperately wants to have a baby, despite his best efforts to put her off.

After being suspended from work for a violent outburst, Fred drives from New York to California to see Shelliot (Kelleia Sheerin), a friend from high school. Shelliot is married to Hector (Vladimir Borges) who suspects, rightly, that Fred lusts after his wife. Hector and Shelliot are going through their own marital crisis. They are adoptive parents to Oliver (R.J. Sharpe) and Soomi (Ashley Argota), but Shelliot wants a baby of her own, to Hector's consternation.

After casting about aimlessly for a couple days, Fred accompanies Hector to the alternative school where he teaches, and to which Oliver and Soomi attend. The school is run democratically with every student and teacher having an equal voice in the governance of the school, and each student having complete freedom in filling the day. Student activities appear to range from computer and card games, to sleeping, to cooking classes, to structured and unstructured debates and conversations.

Fred is initially nonplussed by the governance of the school, doubting whether the students learn much. He and Hector have long talks about whether authoritarian teaching methods are appropriate in democratic societies, and he hears one anecdotal tale of success from another teacher who graduated from a similar school. Fred also sees the students use the democratic process to spurn an attempted coup by a student faction led by Oliver. Finally, Fred joins in play with the students and begins engaging them on their own terms.

Fred and Hector have a moment in the moonlight working through their mutual resentments through some new-agish confrontation process. No sooner is the male bonding complete than Fred's holiday ends abruptly when he learns of a tragedy back in Long Island. He rushes home and the film concludes with Fred putting his new ideas about life and education into practice with Luna and his students.

Schooled suffers so many technical mistakes that it comes as no surprise to learn that Writer/Director Brooks Elms used Craigslist to assemble his crew. This film is repeatedly tripped up by novice errors: from boom mike shadows on walls and chalkboards to visible radio mics on belts, to bad sound mixing that makes footsteps and chair scrapes boom like thunder, to odd glares and shadow patterns attributable to bad lighting, to jiggling camerawork and ugly jump cuts, to glaring continuity errors between shots within the same scene, to cars without seatbelts and headrests to accommodate camera angles, to silly little mistakes like having California plates on Fred's car.

Without listening to the commentary or repeatedly viewing the film, figuring out what Elms intended to convey will simply be too much for many viewers. On a cold viewing, one can easily misinterpret this film to be a story about transforming a burned-out teacher into an extraordinary one, but Elms' actual intentions are both more subtle and more expansive than this. Unfortunately for the success of this film, viewers may not be inclined to give Elms the benefit of the doubt and really struggle with the film.

Finally, in not wanting to make his message too overstated, Elms may leave viewers scratching their heads over his views on the democratic schooling that is featured so prominently in the film. Elms is too subtle in conveying what Fred got out of his time at the alternative school and how he'll apply it back in his public school. Elms provides examples of the alternative school students demonstrating confidence, cooperation, and reasoning in their debates about school governance, and some mastery of home economics in their household budgeting, but there is scant indication that reading comprehension, advanced mathematics, and science are being learned, or how applicable the school's methods would be in situations in which the parents aren't also fully engaged. The heady debates about the validity of authoritarian schooling in a democratic society are all well and good, but to propose such a radically different educational approach without better addressing the most likely questions that parents with children in traditional schooling will ask is going to leave a lot of viewers feeling dissatisfied. The commentary track and excerpt from the documentary Voices from the New American Schoolhouse found in the extras are very helpful in addressing Elms' intentions and viewers' questions about the democratic schools, but many viewers won't go that far.

The DVD

The Video:
Schooled is presented in a letterboxed 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image looks to be standard video of average quality. There are no subtitle options.

The Audio:
The disc provides a 2.0 stereo mix. As mentioned above, the mix makes footsteps and scraping chairs boom like thunder. Nevertheless, dialogue is understandable throughout.

The Extras:
The disc includes an optional commentary track with director Brooks Elms and lead actor Daniel Kucan which is actually very good and is highly recommended to anyone that does attempt to engage this film. There are also three bonus scenes, and an excerpt from Voices from the New American Schoolhouse a documentary about democratically run schools. As mentioned above, the documentary excerpt will be useful to viewers interested in more detail about how a democratic school works.

Final Thoughts:
Schooled is a film that some viewers will get immediately and greatly enjoy despite its glaring flaws. It's also the kind of film that benefits from repeated viewings and from working through the extras. Most viewers, however, just aren't going to do that. This film cannot in good conscience be recommended to viewers who aren't willing to commit themselves to the work needed to appreciate it.

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