mugged by a gang looking for money... and homework

Taking a break from seriousness with Summer School.

Not that this movie doesn't demonstrate one of the points I've been trying to make--students have reasons beyond their attitudes that get in the way of schoolwork. Or, the usual Hollywood take on teaching, as Shoop (Mark Harmon) just said, "Inside every so-called bad kid is a good kid just waiting for someone to reach on down through the sleaze and the slime, pick him up and hose him off." It's a nice thought, but a teacher's gotta have a really powerful and long reach to get past the personal obstacles--like Rhonda's (Shawnee Smith) pregnancy--economic issues--like Larry's (Ken Olandt) night job--or other outstanding hinderances that have nothing to do with the kid's attitude or, necessarily, the teacher's ability.

But, I said this was a break from seriousness. You know what amuses me about this movie lately? I read Roger Ebert's review of the film today and he hated this film. He calls it "a comedy so listless, leisurely and unspirited that it was an act of the will for me to care about it, even while I was watching it." I think he was just offended because Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley) ape the thumbs up/thumbs down bit from At the Movies.

The idea that all of the "basic types of movie teenagers" here are "equally forgettable" is just crazy to me. I've been quoting lines from this movie, especially from Chainsaw and Dave, for nearly three decades now. A few of them barely register as far as their personalities go (Larry, on purpose, of course), but Denise (Kelly Jo Minter) and her attitude certainly register--her brief rant about menstruation, alone, offers up more personality than some characters have through entire films.

As with any good teacher film, Shoop gets involved in his students' personal lives, even goes to jail for two of them.

Ebert dismisses Shoop's relationship with Robin (Kirstie Alley), as well. "Some so-called love interest," he writes, "is provides by Kirstie Alley as the sexy teacher down the hallway." Then, he does make a point about cinematic romance, generally; "She and Harmon perform the basic romantic three-step from Screenwriting 101: (1) She can't stand him..." And, I gotta interrupt there. She immediately responds to his flirting, and is only hesitant to actively respond to his advances because she's dating Vice Principal Phil Gills (Robin Thomas), who she hasn't realized yet is a bit of an ass. She agrees to help him right away when he decides to actually teach his class instead of going on field trips. She can definitely stand him. But, Ebert continues: "(2) she learns to accept him..." See above. "...and (3) they fall in love." Assume Ebert's take on 1 and 2 is correct, it's the same trajectory as in Groundhog Day. Shoop clearly cares about his students, he's just not used to having an "actual" class. When Denise "reads" her essay, he notices immediately that there's something off about her reading (later, it turns out, she's dyslexic, and in response to her slipping through the system, he asks, "What happens when she gets out into the real world?"). But, he learns here to be a better teacher, and to get past his initial bribes to actually want his students to do well. He becomes worthy of Robin's attention. "It amazes me," Ebert writes, "that filmmakers will still film, and audiences will still watch, relationships so bankrupt of human feeling that the characters could be reading dialogue written by a computer." It just takes being cute together, like just now as Shoop tried to get Robin to admit she wasn't in love with Gills. It doesn't have to be deep; it just has to work.

And then, there's this:

The movie contains: practical jokes, field trips, rebellion, acceptance, evil [vice] principals, absent girlfriends, a birth, a scene involving lots of special-effects makeup, a display of total teaching ineptitude, and some very mild sex.

He says that like it's a bad thing. And, he forgets the stripclub, the couch on fire, and Shoop actually teaching. "It doesn't even have the nerve to be vulgar," he complains, because it was the raunch that made Porky's good, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High good...

Okay, there are surely a lot of people who think that is what made those movies good, but come on? Fast Times presents sex in a negative light, primarily, to make a point. Porky's ends up being, though shallowly, I admit, about loyalty and camaraderie over the sex stuff. That Summer School could be PG-13--those other two movies came out before that rating existed or they probably would have been a little tamer for this very reason--means it could have a bigger audience, potentially. It was #3 at the box office ($6.01m) behind Robocop ($6.3m) and a re-issue of Snow White ($6.04m).

Despite Roger Ebert, Summer School may be slight but it's entertaining. And just this past January at the Complex in Hollywood, they did a stage version of this "most underrated movie of the 80s." Sure, it billed itself as a "parody" but it was a parody of a classic.

And, the students wanting Shoop back here was more believable than the students marching for Joe Clark in Lean on Me, for sure.


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