I have long been intrigued by the way teaching is represented in film. It is a relatively rare subject for filmmakers to delve into, perhaps perceived as too dry or familar a setting for most people to want to spend time in. However, after some reflection and a few tweets it was clear there were enough movies to make the selection of the five best movies about teachers contentious. I persuaded my Uncle to compile a rival list which you can read here, he is an English teacher, Depute Head, blogger and film enthusiast so I am really interested to see the films he selects. For me the criteria was fairly straightforward, the main character had to be a teacher although I have strayed from the rule for one of my selections, but if you have seen the film in question, you will understand why.
5. Half Nelson (2006)
On a second viewing I started to see the joins in this film, but the characters still achieve a level of complexity and realism lacking in most representations of teachers onscreen. On paper there seems to be too much going on with Ryan Gosling’s history teacher Dan Dunne. A crack smoking, off the curriculum, wanabee writer striving to save one of his inner city charges from the clutches of the local drug dealer could easily have slipped into cliche and melodrama. However, a combination of Gosling’s edgy performance and Ryan Flecks’s inventive direction ensure that does not that happen. Half Nelson ebbs and flows with the moods of our protagonist much in the way of a school year.
Here our teacher strays close to a complete collapse and the tension comes from there as much as from the nicely underplayed relationship between Dunne and Drey (Shareeka Epps), the student who discovers him early in the film smoking a pipe in the school toilets. This is far from the teacher as saint, but captures much of what it is like to work with young people. There is a self-indulgence to Dunne’s character, yet he has a clear sense of vocation and affection for his students. No neat conclusions are reached, but we sense our educator may find the next term just a little bit easier to handle.
4. Gregory’s Girl(1981)
Here I unapologetically cheat slightly by sneaking in a film with a group of teachers in supporting roles rather than as the protagonist. Bill Forsyth’s 1982 Gregory’s Girl is a beautifully observed warm hearted comedy set around a large new town comprehensive school in Scotland. Jake D’Arcy’s feckless PE teacher Phil Menzies is a treat in this film, understanding as little about his adolescent footballers as they do about his frustration with their attempts to play football. Forsyth gets what is inherently funny, ridiculous and endearing about a typical secondary school with the students and teachers coexisting in a routine that seems to have very little to do with the content of the lessons.
3. La Classe/ The Class (2008)
A Parisienne inner city school teacher walks the line with his students in 2008’s excellent La Classe. Facing similar challenges to those of Gosling’s Dunne in Half Nelson here we see and feel the rush of decision making involved in managing a classroom filled with ethic tensions, boredom and insecurities including those of the teacher trying to hold it all together.
Mr Marin and his students played fictional versions of their real selves for this project, a set-up that could easily have resulted in a film that felt contrived and staged. However, the opposite is true as we are pulled inside the bright yet claustrophobic classroom. There is always a sense of unease, the laughter slightly nervous, the peace paper thin. Marin is in control but only just, he works with humour to diffuse confrontations but it is a dangerous game that may backfire at any point.
2. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
There is a very recognisable Mike Leighness to Mike Leigh films. His characters are painstakingly and intricately drawn over long periods of rehearsal by the actors before shooting and they that inhabit a world that feels very much lived in by the time we, the viewers, happen upon it. In Sally Hawkins’s primary school teacher Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, we get a character whose relentless optimism and chirp pushes and pulls us with equal measure. She is happy on her own terms and defends her decisons when challenged by her upwardly mobile sister over a strained weekend visit to the suburban semi detached to which her sister has ascended. Poppy has chosen a different path and makes no apologies for it.
However, Poppy also infuriates in her inability to keep her little suggestive asides to herself, especially when nervous. A character trait that proves crucial to the central tension of the drama, pushing Eddie Marden’s driving instructor Scott into apoplexy as he tries to teach Poppy to drive. Scott is not sure what to do with Poppy and he starts to come apart at the seams as all his anger and unhappiness is exposed. Also falling apart but with an honesty that just endears her more to her students is Poppy’s flamenco instructor. In the two best scenes in this film Leigh shows us the great joy and empowerment that a good teacher can bring.
Leigh’s films often work in the contrasts he presents between an ensemble of characters but dominating this piece is the usually and unashamedly functional central character of Poppy. An individual who is good at a job that matters, cares deeply for her friends and students and is quite literally Happy-Go-lucky.
1. Être et avoir / To Be and To Have (2002)
Être et avoir is a documentary that follows a year in the life of the teacher and students of a one room schoolhouse in rural France. This is an elegantly constructed film that guides us through the seasons and in an out of the homes and farms the students come from. In Mr Gonsales classroom we are a long way from the claustrophia and tension of La Classe as we see an educator completely at home in his environment, a place that is slowly and subtlely revealed to be the heart of the community it serves. For a film about a group of children between the ages of 4 and 11 there is a surprising quiet and calmness to this piece; it comes from the gentle assurance of the teacher and lingering shots of the trees and hills that surround this little school.
This film shows the great skill, craft and patience involved in becoming an accomplished teacher. Mr Gonsales knows when to listen and knows when to intervene. He gently guides his younger students, helping them learn how to count and wash their hands. We see him then have to switch to the role of counsellor to the older students in his class, dealing with the tearful aftermath of a pre-adolescent playground squabble. The scene where he says goodbye to his students for the summer, some of whom he has taught for seven years and are moving on to the big school away from the village is a powerful a piece of filmmaking that stayed with me for long after I had watched this magnificent film.