D: Kevin Reynolds / 119m
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Collins Jr (as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), Tony Plana, Karina Arroyave, Lobo Sebastian, Jack Kehler, Jonah Rooney, Demetrius Navarro, Richard Riehle
If you were a regular moviegoer in the mid- to late-Nineties then you’ll remember there was a spate of inspirational movies that revolved around teachers going into difficult schools and classrooms and making an impact on the lives of their – up ’til then at least – rowdy and supposedly unreachable pupils. In 1995 we had both Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mr. Holland’s Opus with Richard Dreyfuss. 1997 also saw Good Will Hunting, with Robin Williams mentoring Matt Damon’s maths prodigy. And 1999 gave us Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. All of these movies had one thing in common: they pitted a committed individual against both institutional and cultural apathy within the US education system. But in amongst all those valiant portrayals and feelgood endings, one movie took an opposite stance. (Can you guess which one?)
Trevor Garfield (Jackson) is a science teacher working at a Brooklyn high school. One of the students in his class stabs him repeatedly with a shiv after being given a failing grade. Fifteen months later, and Garfield is living in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and working as a substitute teacher. He gets a call to sub at John Quincy Adams High School for four days. Day one is something of a disaster. He starts off in the wrong classroom, and when he’s in the right one he finds himself having to deal with a disrespectful student called Benny Chacón (Sebastian). Benny is the leader of a local Chicano gang that go by the name K.O.S. (Kappin’ Off Suckers). When another teacher, Ellen Henry (Rowan), tells Garfield that Benny has threatened her in the past, Garfield is sympathetic but doesn’t have any answers for her.
Garfield’s time at the school is extended, and Benny disappears. Garfield and Ellen start seeing each other, and things seem to be settling down until Garfield’s watch is stolen during a class. Knowing that the new leader of K.O.S., César Sanchez (Collins Jr), is responsible, he reports it to the school principal (Plana). The principal appears more concerned with avoiding any potential law suits than investigating or backing up Garfield’s claim, and Garfield has to take matters into his own hands in order to get his watch back. This sets in motion a war of attrition between Garfield and Sanchez that is brought to a halt when Sanchez is attacked one night and one of his fingers is cut off. Knowing that Garfield is responsible but unable to prove it to the police, it’s only a matter of time before Sanchez decides to get even with Garfield. However their home invasion-cum-execution plan doesn’t go exactly the way they planned…
At the end of One Eight Seven, a caption advises the viewer that “a teacher wrote this movie”. If it’s meant to convey a truthfulness to the events depicted in the movie then it misses that particular mark by a wide, country mile. There’s little about this movie that makes any sense, and even less that appears credible. Narrative problems begin to make themselves known in the opening scenes, with Jackson’s earnest and more than a little worried Garfield talking to a superior, Walter (Riehle), about the death threat he’s received from a student. Walter behaves like an ass, and refuses to take the threat seriously. It’s an unlikely scene, and while it’s there to make a point that will become more relevant later on, it’s astonishingly clumsy. And it’s the first moment where the movie takes the viewer by the hand and lays everything out for them as if their ability to grasp the criticism that the schools system is managed by incompetent administrators is beyond them.
From then on, Scott Yagemann’s screenplay does its best to tick all the boxes relating to school-based clichés, and even throws in the talented student who lacks confidence/is bullied or abused (or both) (Arroyave), and who Garfield takes under his wing (he also agrees to tutor her at his home unsupervised, something that no teacher in his or her right mind would contemplate; more cynically, it’s an excuse for Arroyave to be shown naked). Equally problematic is the relationship that develops between Garfield and Ellen. On the one hand it’s yet another mixed race semi-romance that won’t go anywhere (they’re only allowed to kiss in this movie), and on the other, Ellen is there solely as the Voice of Reason, the one character who will remind audiences that vigilantism is a bad thing, and all while the movie promotes the opposite.
Because at its core, One Eight Seven isn’t about the schools system being in crisis, or how teachers are increasingly under threats of violence from alienated pupils. Instead it’s a movie taking a very provocative and very conservative stance. It’s saying, if you’re a teacher and you can’t get through to certain pupils because they aren’t responding to your teaching methods, then it’s okay to maim or kill them (the movie does try to make it seem as if Garfield’s innocent of harming Benny and Sanchez, but it’s too obvious that he’s not). It’s hard to believe that this is a recommendation being made by a former teacher (Yagemann worked for over seven years in the Los Angeles public schools system), but even if you dismiss it as a form of artistic licence, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and one that director Kevin Reynolds seems unaware of. Though not exactly known for making “message movies”, Reynolds still seems way out of his depth here, and the movie lacks consistency, with many scenes failing to engage the viewer or advance the plot.
For the most part the performances are adequate, with Jackson building up to the kind of vocal pyrotechnics that are expected of him even more these days, and Heard underused as usual as a fellow teacher who takes a concealed firearm to work (this isn’t challenged either; is Yagemann saying this is normal, or even okay?). Rowan has little to do beyond acting as a bundle of nerves, Plana is only required to behave obsequiously in a couple of scenes, and Arroyave is the Dangerous Minds alumni with a bigger, yet cruelly underwritten role. Only Collins Jr, for whom this was a break-out role and a break-out movie, injects any real passion or commitment into his portrayal, and his is the one performance that offers anything more than what seems to have been in the script.
Rating: 4/10 – flawed, and taking a reactionary stance that it tries to be ambivalent about, One Eight Seven crosses a line early on and never looks back to see if it should have crossed it in the first place; uninspired and leaden for long stretches, it’s a movie with an unpalatable message, and no idea (or intention) of providing a balanced viewpoint that might allow the audience to entertain any doubts about the issues under discussion. (8/31)