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School daze
Chalk descends into high school hell.
Chalk descends into high school hell.

Whether you're a parent, a teacher, a student or an innocent bystander, you may want to check out Chalk, a mockumentary that does for high school what The Office does for corporate life: reveals it in all its excruciatingly amusing splendor. Set in Austin, Texas, where writer/director Mike Akel and co-writer/co-star Chris Mass actually taught school to support their improv-comedy habit, the movie feels painfully, hilariously real, and what's gratifying about it is that it focuses on the teachers, not the students - the "them" in the old game of Us versus Them. We're told, right off the bat, that 50% of all teachers quit within three years, and after spending a complete academic year at Harrison High, Home of the Hornets, we're left wondering how any of them last even that long. It's not a job, it's a prison sentence.

And the filmmakers manage to find both the humor and the pathos - even the dignity - in what has to be one of life's more hopeless missions. Take Mr. Stroope (Mass), a third-year history teacher who has such rapport with his students that it doesn't really matter that some of them know more about history than he does. (He has to ask one of them not to use such big words.) Or Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), a second-year P.E. teacher who's worried that her short hair, along with that whole P.E. thing, is going to make it difficult to meet men. Or Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), the newly appointed assistant principal who, her first day on the job, asks the principal what she should have said when a student told her she could kiss his white ass. Under such circumstances, simply showing up for work the next day seems heroic.

And then there's Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a first-year history teacher who should not have been sent into the classroom unarmed. Mild-mannered, shy, even a little terrified, he has no idea how to establish discipline, and the students basically eat him alive. But the movie has some interesting developments in store for Mr. Lowrey, as it does for all of us, and it's hard to believe the whole thing was largely improvised, so beautifully do the various storylines fail to resolve themselves. Hats off to the cast, who knew just where to pitch their performances - naturalistic as can be, but with an almost imperceptible wink to the audience. And hats off to Akel, who, in not going for the big laugh, winds up with something more valuable, a smile. Don't be surprised, however, if that smile, as the school year finally draws to a close, is joined by a tear.

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