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Teacher of the Year

D: Jason Strouse / 80m

Cast: Matt Letscher, Keegan-Michael Key, Sunny Mabrey, Larry Joe Campbell, Jamie Kaler, Jason Sklar, Randy Sklar, Tamlyn Tomita, Brenda Strong, Caitlin Carmichael, Chris Conner, Eden Riegel, Shari Belafonte, Karl T. Wright, Richard Keith, Lahna Turner, Gabriel Chavarria, Jonathan Goldstein, Olivia Crocicchia

At the relatively new Truman High School in Los Angeles – opened in 2007 – English teacher Mitch Carter (Letscher) has recently won the state teacher of the year award. With his stock in the teaching community riding high, he’s approached by a representative (Goldstein) of the National Independent School Association to become a lobbyist for them. The job entails appearing at symposiums, making speeches on behalf of the Association, a hefty increase in salary, and moving himself and his family – wife Kate (Mabrey) and young daughter Sierra (Carmichael) – to Washington D.C. But though the offer is tempting, Mitch needs time to think about it.

While he does, Mitch is also part of a documentary being made about him and the rest of the faculty, and the students, at Truman High. The principal is Ronald Douche (pronounced Dow-shay, “the same spelling, but the Dutch pronunciation”) (Key), an uptight, trying-too-hard-to-be-liked bureaucrat who garners little respect from either the teachers or the students. While he promotes the school’s achievements, the documentary crew go behind the scenes to discover just how much of what he says is true. What they find is a group of teachers who are all just a little bit weird, or just plain strange, like Brian Campbell (Conner), who uses a glove puppet in his maths class.

Mitch is interviewed for the role with NISA and realises to his surprise that it’s a job he’ll be good at, but the work he does with his students gives him pause. Still unable to make a decision, his own problems have to be put on the back burner when Brian is accused of molesting a student (Crocicchia) and suspended. With Douche intending to fire Brian and thereby keep the whole situation away from the press, a meeting is set up with the girl and her mother. With Kate newly pregnant and working too hard at an unrewarding job, Mitch is given an ultimatum by NISA: decide one way or the other, but just decide. In the end, it’s the outcome of the meeting to decide Brian’s fate that pushes Mitch to make his mind up. But will he stay, or will he go?

Teacher of the Year - scene

A pure joy from start to finish, Teacher of the Year is one of the funniest comedies of 2014, an inspired, laugh-out-loud, intelligently handled movie that adds drama and sentiment to the mix with undisguised aplomb. Writer/director Strouse has fashioned the kind of movie that can be enjoyed on so many different levels it’s like being given the keys to the candy store. There’s not one false note or misstep in the whole of its eighty minute running time.

As well as one of the most effective, carefully constructed mise en scenes of recent years, Strouse has created a raft of characters that are so beautifully realised by his cast that spending so little time with them seems like a crime. Aside from Brian and his glove puppet, there’s robotics teacher Steven Queeg (Kaler) who has issues over Mitch’s winning teacher of the year and who tells his students that the robots will take over the world in the future. There’s ineffectual history teacher Ian Donovan (Keith) whose inability to control his class leads to his offering to pay them to pay attention; vice principal Marv Collins (Campbell) who’s forever giving out detention slips for the smallest of infractions; Ursula Featherstone (Turner), whose musical summing up of The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank is a definite highlight; and tenured Eric Sanders (Wright) who would give back half his salary if he could “punch a parent once a year”. Add two counsellors (Sklar, Sklar) who regularly give the worst advice you’re ever likely to hear – “Stay away from Nevada. You can go. But you’re gonna kill a hooker.” – and you have such a marvellous collection of misfits and malcontents that, again, you’ll want to spend as much time with them as possible.

But while the movie correctly focuses on the comedy, it doesn’t downplay or undermine the dramatic elements. Brian’s dilemma is handled with a greater depth of feeling than expected, as is Mitch’s relationship with his students (it’s a tribute to Strouse’s script that if Mitch was a real teacher you’d want him teaching at your kids’ school). The trials and tribulations of being a suburban school teacher are handled with an adroitness that adds credibility to each character, and Mitch’s home life is ably rendered as well, his marriage refreshingly free of unnecessary drama, and with its attendant dynamics kept equally low-key. The movie is shot through with unanticipated poignancy, and has several moments where it displays a warm-hearted centre that enhances both the drama and the comedy, and leaves the viewer smiling at the sheer pleasure watching the movie is providing.

Mitch is the smiling, genial core of the movie, an everyman with a heart of gold and a passion for teaching that comes across as entirely genuine, and Letscher is first class in the role, imbuing the part with a sincerity that never feels false. He’s ably supported  by a cast that milks every nuance and subtlety from Strouse’s script, and who do it with an obvious eagerness. It’s hard to single out any one particular cast member, but Kaler and Wright flesh out their characters so effectively, they make it really difficult to forget them in a hurry.

Strouse is to be congratulated for coming up with such a wonderfully astute and shaded script, and for directing it with such perception and skill. He’s aided immensely by DoP/editor Matthew Skala, whose aptitude at cutting together his own footage gives the movie a rhythm and a flow that suits it perfectly. And with a score containing songs by The Chicharones, the movie is as uplifting to listen to as it is to watch.

Rating: 9/10 – a sheer delight throughout, Teacher of the Year deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, its good-natured charm and winning formula an absolute joy to behold; whatever Strouse turns his hand to next, let’s hope it’s as richly satisfying as this one is.