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On Movies: Of education, mental illness and clones

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2010 - Some years ago, an enthusiastic young biology teacher in a suburban school district found he was unable to support his family on a teacher's pay. But he loved teaching. So, even though he had a close family connection at a large, well-paying St. Louis company, he kept on teaching and took a second job - bagging groceries at a supermarket.

One day, a member of the suburban school board spotted the young biology teacher in the checkout line and sternly informed him that it was "undignified" for a teacher to be seen bagging groceries. At the end of the school year, the young man quit teaching, quit bagging groceries, and went to work for the well-paying St. Louis company. Although he always missed teaching, he never regretted his decision.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that when you're assigning fault for the tragic decline in the quality of America's public schools in the last 50 years, you can't just blame the teachers. That is what filmmaker Davis Guggenheim comes perilously close to doing in "Waiting for 'Superman'," an emotionally potent and skillful but sometimes simplistic polemic that focuses on an undeniable (and inconvenient) truth - many of our public schools are failing to educate their students, particularly in our inner cities.

The villains of the story are bad teachers and the teacher's unions that keep them from getting fired. Guggenheim, the St. Louis-born director of "An Inconvenient Truth," shows us the notorious "rubber room" -- the large enclosure in New York where gaggles of teachers charged with incompetence and worse wait, at full pay, for months and even years as proceedings against them fail to actually proceed. The scenes inspire outrage, and they should.

Unions, in general, will take what employers will give them, and school boards never should have agreed to contracts that, in effect, make it virtually impossible to fire incompetents. But, as Guggenheim points out time and again, the two main teacher's unions wield enormous political power locally and nationally. And, like all pressure groups, they wield the power in their own self-interest, which is not always the interest of their students.

The heroes of the story are independent educators like Michelle Rhee, the tough young chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools who has battled a teachers' union as well as featherbedding, obstructionist administrators since she took over the district in 2007. She has fired administrators, closed unnecessary schools and achieved some testable success in improving public education in D.C. while battling the teacher's union to a standstill.

Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, a mayoral candidate who has opposed Rhee at every step and who has strong support from teachers' unions won the Democratic primary and is expected to be elected in November. It would be surprising if Rhee keeps her job, although it would not be surprising if she surfaced in another urban district.

Another hero is Geoffrey Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx and who runs a group of very successful charter schools in Harlem. The Harlem Children's Zone aims at educating children from infancy, and seems to be on the right track, with the help of millions of dollars in private donations.

The average charter school, as Guggenheim briefly acknowledges, seems to do no better and no worse than the average public school in educating children, at least so far in what is an ongoing experiment. But charter and alternative public schools started by Canada and Rhee and the KIPP organization are so successful that children and their parents must submit to a lottery to narrow down the large number of applicants.

The movie focuses on several pupils in several cities who hope to beat the odds and be accepted to alternative schools, and ends with the children waiting to hear their names or numbers called as the lottery balls roll, one by one, down a chute. President Obama, who was shown the movie, described these final scenes as "heartbreaking," and they are.

"Waiting for 'Superman'" is a strong statement in favor of changing the system of public education, and is rightly supportive of innovators like Rhee and Canada. I wish it has been a little less inflammatory in its gruelingly negative portrait of the teacher's unions. From time to time, after a particularly damning statement about the unions, Guggenheim will cut to a close-up of union leader Randi Weingarten raging about something, and the sense you get from the juxtaposition of images is viscerally roiling. It's like flashing a picture of Nancy Pelosi at a Glenn Beck rally. You feel like you're supposed to hiss. I'd rather have heard more about the unions responses to Guggenheim's attack. (Some of that is available at www.waitingforsupermantruth.org.)

And I wish Guggenheim had gone a little more deeply into the variety of reasons that some schools are "dropout factories," instead of showing us gimmicky shots of the old "Superman" television show to reinforce the metaphor of the title. Clearly, the teachers' unions are in part to blame, at least for difficulties in firing bad teachers, but what about unionized schools that succeed? What about highly regarded public schools like Clayton High School? Is it possible that relative wealth and educated, committed parents do make a difference? And is it possible that if a parent cares enough to insist that a child go to a charter school, the child is already a step ahead in the climb to success?

I think everyone interested in our country's future should see "Waiting for Superman," but I also think everyone should be prepared to argue with the movie. I wish the director had gone a little more deeply into his subject - what about inept or meddling school boards, incompetent superintendents, stingy citizens, neglectful parents? And I wish we had gotten to know a few good teachers better, teachers in both charter and public schools who succeed in the classroom, teachers who have some idea of what works, as opposed to what doesn't seem to work at all.

Opens Friday, Oct. 8

'It's Kind of a Funny Story'

Sixteen-year-old Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) is depressed, and he has been having some weird dreams about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. So, he decides to check into a mental hospital, figuring he can talk to a doctor and maybe get some pills and be home by dark. That, of course, is not the way it works, and once he has been admitted to the hospital as a potential suicide, he has to stay for at least five days before he can be released.

Craig's five days in a mostly adult mental ward are the basis of "It's Kind of a Funny Story," a comedic character study that turns into a love story. If you're looking for a serious examination of mental illness among teenagers, or for that matter among adults, you won't find it here, but the movie is enjoyable if you take it lightly.

Craig's real problem, which is cleverly satirized through funny little flashbacks, is that he, under parental duress, attends a super-competitive New York public school for future business leaders and is headed for a highly competitive summer institute for kids whose fallback school is Yale. Stressed-out Craig observes, in a perceptive moment, that when his parents were children, people just went to the school nearest their homes. Now, in New York at least, the competition for the top city-wide schools starts in kindergarten, and never lets up. It's truly enough to drive a kid crazy.

Some years ago, as it happens, a college friend of mine was feeling kind of blue and, like Craig, he decided to check himself into a mental hospital. He was no more than 15 minutes into the process before he discovered he was making a terrible mistake, but by then it was too late. They kept him until they were convinced he was OK, or perhaps until they were convinced he would never again check himself into a mental hospital, at least not on a whim.

"You couldn't believe the people in there," my friend said when they finally let him go. "They were really crazy." He meant scary crazy.

The people in Craig's ward are funny crazy and sometimes sad crazy, not scary crazy. He becomes friends with a veteran of the psych ward, Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a gentle hustler with some deep insecurities, and he and Bobby help each other get better. That is a standard plot device for this kind of movie but the talented Galifianakis helps give it new life. The bearded young man can do a lot of acting with his intense eyes alone.

Then romance comes into Craig's life, and the movie becomes a story of young love.

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" was written and directed by indie filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Sugar"), who keep the story moving along and amuse us with inventive fantasy and dream sequences. It's not a great movie and it might be accused of not taking mental illness seriously enough, but, true to its title, it's kind of funny, and kind of sweet, and modestly entertaining.

'Never Let Me Go'

Hailsham is a shabby but genteel private school in a sparsely wooded, lonely corner of Britain. The students are treated with routine kindness and told from time to time that they are "special." And indeed they are. They are clones, and they are being raised to serve as organ donors.

"Never Let Me Go," adapted by Alex Garland ("The Beach") from the acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, is the solemn story of three students who meet at Hailsham, grow up together, and upon reaching adulthood are confronted with the fate that they were cloned for. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) postpones the inevitable for a few years by becoming a "carer" - she helps fellow donors recover from an organ removal, and prepares them psychologically for the next one. Most seem to die after the third operation, although there are rumors of bodies being kept alive on machines for more extractions.

Kathy is quietly in love with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Tommy may well be in love with Kathy, but Ruth (Keira Knightley), aggressive and scheming, simply refuses to let Tommy go, battering down his relatively weak will with acrobatic sex. Later, Kathy comes to be the carer for both Tommy and Ruth, and the love triangle plays itself out.

The original novel, at times truly heartbreaking, was given emotional strength by Ishiguro's remarkable ability to tug us into the center of characters, to make us care about them and see into their hearts without melodramatics. For the movie, Garland and director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") try to stay true to Ishiguro's style, with most of the emotions implied rather than overtly acted out. They are only partially successful. Although the movie is beautifully photographed, if you like stark, chilly, color-drained landscapes and seascapes, after a time it stops going anywhere. The story does not have Ishiguro's prose, his keen eye and ear and sensitivity to nuance, to move it forward. And the acting tends to be bland.

In a sense, the climax comes about a fourth of the way through the movie, when a new teacher decides to tell the students the truth about what lies in store for them. The rest of the film shows us how the students deal with the knowledge. The result is a moderately engaging character study, but dramatically it's anticlimactic.

Although the original book is significantly better than the movie - Ishiguro is an extraordinary writer -- one nagging problem with the movie can be traced to the book.

You'd think, once these children learned that they were being raised for spare parts, anger and bitterness would lead at least some of them to rebel against the system. There is no evidence of that, and the story feels incomplete. These are, after all, teenagers. It's against human nature for all of them to go so gently into their cruel and premature goodnight.

Opens Friday, Oct. 1

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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