on May 11, 2007 by Mark Keizer
If you learn anything from Mike Akel's partially improvised comedy “Chalk,” it's that the greatest attribute a high school teacher can have is not book knowledge, great lesson plans or people skills, but patience. Mr. Lowry (Troy Schremmer) may not have the requisite amount of patience. This is his first year as a teacher, and he clearly has no handle on the kids in his class. The students (played by non-actors who forfeited their summer vacation to be in the film) smell his fear and eat him alive. Lowry is the heart of the film, but not necessarily the most entertaining character in a tale with many interesting individuals.

To call “Chalk” a mockumentary in the mold perfected by Christopher Guest (“Best in Show”) is slightly inaccurate. Director Akel is himself a high school teacher and many of his actors are also teachers, with most having some acting or improv experience. The result is unfiltered by Hollywood sensibilities and the developmentally stunted development executives who would insist on a scene where the male teachers huddle in the lunchroom discussing which female student they fancy. None of that is to be found here. The actors are too close to the subject, which in this case works to the film's advantage. “Chalk” parts the curtain on what it's like to be a teacher, as opposed to parting the curtain on what someone else thinks it might be like to be a teacher.

The film will draw stylistic comparisons to the NBC sitcom “The Office” and Guest's softly satirical creations like “A Mighty Wind.” Like Guest, Akel eschews any sense of hip irony or eagerness to be considered funny. They also share a love of warm, human and funny characters. The only concession to cliché is Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), the PE teacher who frets that the faculty thinks she's a lesbian. She's a tiny, compact girl with short hair who insists on stern adherence to the school's rules of conduct. This creates conflict with Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), a former teacher spending her first year as an Assistant Principal. Initially, Mrs. Reddell is thrilled to have broken the blackboard ceiling on her way to the next vocational level. By mid-year, she's dealing with so much paperwork and interpersonal issues (and lack of sex) that teaching doesn't sound so bad anymore.

The most flamboyantly funny character is Mr. Stroop (a commanding, very present Chris Mass), an ingratiating sort who scolds the students for using bigger words then he does. In his third year presiding over a social studies class, his mission is to win the Teacher of the Year award, promising to his competition, "I'm going to beat her like a step-child."

The movie takes place over the course of one school year. And while each character has an arc, only Mr. Lowry's is fully satisfying. That's because he's the audience, the guy who'd react just like we would, a newbie given a problem and no tools to solve it. Seeing the equation from Lowry's side, the kids really are the enemy. Do not be their friends, the teachers are told. They are to be conquered and indoctrinated in the ways of reading and learning. But there is room for bridge-building. A wonderful sequence involves something called a Spelling Hornet, a contest similar to a Spelling Bee, except the teachers must correctly spell slang words given to them by the students. Mr. Lowry, the most scared and wounded of the faculty, would seem the last person on Earth to correctly spell “scheisty.” But his impressive showing is a breakthrough for a teacher who had yet to earn the respect of his students, especially considering his nasty run-in with a cellphone-happy pupil.

The performances are uniformly good and some of these non-pros (especially Mass) are ready for a career in sitcoms. Akel shot 55 hours of material using two DVX-100A digital cameras. One camera concentrated on being more jittery and verité, while the other stayed traditional.

Unlike the litany of inspirational teacher movies, “Chalk” uses humor to make its truth approachable and palatable. Since Akel doesn't make heroes out of his characters, the movie feels genuine. Lowry, Stroop, Mrs. Reddell and the rest are presented as is: worker bees who embrace what they love about their job and endure what they don't. But for most of them, there's no place else they'd rather be. Starring Troy Schremmer, Chris Mass and Janelle Schremmer. Directed by Mike Akel. Written by Mike Akel and Chris Mass. Produced by Mike Akel, Angie Alvarez and Graham Davidson. No distributor yet. Comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 85 min

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