Chalk (2007): Character Feature from Mike Akel

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Though advertised as a mockumentary in the style of Christopher Guests films (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman), Chalk is actually a warm character piece with many understated observations about the American school system. Director and co-writer Mike Akel slips during the broader comedic moments, but on the whole, this look at the lives of several teachers at a Texas high school shines because it treats its believable characters with compassion and understanding.

Structured as a documentary, the film follows the inner working of Harrison High over the course of one school year. Specifically, we meet a handful of the schools newer teachers, including hapless first-year history instructor Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) and Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), who teaches physical education, but is insecure being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated discipline. (She adamantly expresses to the camera that shes not lesbian.)

Others look to the new school year as an opportunity for exciting changes. Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) has recently been promoted to assistant principal, transitioning from the classroom to a more administrative position. And the clueless, immature Mr. Stroope (co-writer Chris Mass) focuses his energy on being named Teacher of the Year; he even recruits his students to campaign for him.

Initially, with its characters addressing the camera and its scenes of embarrassingly awkward interactions, Chalk feels akin to Guests films where different subcultures are satirized for their ludicrous and self-important behavior. However, aside from one over-the-top character, Chalk remains grounded in everyday realities whereas the people in Guests mockumentaries often are hysterically extreme to illustrate their absurdities.

The lack of foolish characters might disappoint some who simply want another mockumentary, but Chalk has more on its mind than caricature. As we follow these characters over the year, the film makes several points about the thankless job that teaching can be, and it also develops its protagonists so that they go through believable personal transformations because of their experiences with their often disinterested, unmotivated students.

The only false note comes from the films construction of Mr. Stroope. A young instructor more concerned with being liked by students, Stroope is meant to represent a weakness of some new teachers desperately needing to be liked since theyre just overgrown children themselves. While the other teachers in Chalk battle with different insecurities while remaining nuanced, Masss portrayal of Stroope is so over the top that he upsets the balance of the otherwise subtle comedy. In both writing and acting, Stroope lacks the layers that would make him more than just comic relief. Hes the only character in Chalk who doesnt seem like a teacher, especially in the films unsuccessful digression into his attempts to become Teacher of the Year.

The other performances, however, are small marvels, mostly because they generate laughs and sympathy without resorting to broad strokes. This naturalistic ensemble is lead by Troy Schremmer as the fumbling Mr. Lowrey. In a less ambitious film, Mr. Lowreys feeble attempts at schoolroom discipline would constitute his entire character, but Chalk delves deeper, showing how he struggles to gain students respect because he cares much about them. Once he starts to improve as a teacher, the changes happen gradually without any gimmicks.

Interestingly, though the films could not be more different in tone and grittiness, Mr. Lowrey resembles Ryan Goslings flawed teacher in Half Nelson, another movie about the desire to connect in a meaningful way with the next generation. Schremmers bio mentions that, beyond acting credits, he’s also involved in religious teaching in his community. He projects such a likable, kind presence in Chalk, that its not hard to imagine that in real life hes just as remarkable a mentor.

His wife Janelle, who plays Coach Webb, has a less prominent role, but she captures the characters tangled ball of loneliness and abrasiveness. Again, a coarser comedy would have simplified Coach Webb–making every joke about her being a woman teaching P.E.–but the filmmakers show how shes more comfortable expressing herself through physical activity than in other areas of human interaction. Janelle Schremmer does terrific work at making a strict busybody who follows school policy to the letter.

Shannon Haragans Mrs. Reddell seems to be luckier, because she no longer has to deal with students in the classroom, but Chalk observes as she quickly becomes disenfranchised with her assistant principal job, dealing with administrative bureaucracy, unhelpful parents, and poorly-behaved students. Beyond these struggles at work, Mrs. Reddell also faces marital problems at home, as her longer hours keep her from seeing her husband. (Tellingly, he never appears on screen, although hes the recipient of many frustrated phone calls.) Haragan smartly reveals the characters almost-infinite patience while dropping hints of her growing disillusionment as she longs to be back teaching students, which she much prefers.

Chalk is also successful because the filmmakers demonstrate an acute understanding for how challenging teaching can be. Akel and Mass had experience as teachers before writing Chalk, and that intimate knowledge comes through in the casual confidence the film displays for its particular milieu. Too often, movies and television programs reduce those in the profession to either selfless angels offering inspirational pabulum or complete fools who are as childish and petty as their students.

Chalk, for the most part, strikes a balance to create a portrait of recognizable, empathetic protagonists. Audiences may come looking for laughs, but theyre very likely to leave appreciating just how serious a commitment to teaching should be.

Credits

Running time: 85 minutes

Director: Mike Akel
Production companies: SomeDaySoon Productions
US distribution: Hart Sharp
Producers: Mike Akel, Angie Alvarez, Graham Davidson
Executive producers: Michael McAlister, David Gonzales, Morgan Spurlock, Joe Amodei
Screenplay: Mike Akel, Chris Mass
Cinematography: Steven Schaefer
Editor: Bob Perkins
Music: Chris Jagich

Cast

Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer)
Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass)
Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer)
Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan)