Teacher of the Year

It's amusingly appropriate that Teacher of the Year often feels like the cinematic equivalent of that cool high school teacher you always liked: the one who told lots of corny jokes and did lots of silly things as a stealthy way of trying to help you learn something. This isn't a great piece of filmmaking, but it's made with such well-intentioned sincerity and good-natured goofiness that it proves almost impossible to dislike. You shake your head at the cliched storytelling beats, the occasional stilted line readings and the derivative structural techniques, but the film still feels casually charming and strikingly personal.

The movie is a mockumentary in the vein of Christopher Guest's films (Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap gets a fairly prominent shout-out in one scene), but it's less focused on delivering non-stop laughs than most films along these lines. There are plenty of jokes and scenes built on goofy improvisation, but these scenes mostly serve as layers of icing between scenes that encourage us to take a serious look at the struggles modern school systems are facing.

The film details a few days in the life of Mitch Carter (Matt Letscher, Boardwalk Empire), a high school English teacher who has just won a state Teacher of the Year award for his remarkable work at a once-struggling California charter school. The prestigious award gives Mitch an opportunity to make a serious career upgrade: he's been offered a fairly cushy job as an advocate for private schools. Sure, the new position would basically require Mitch to abandon all of his personal and political principles, but buying a house with a little more space sounds awfully tempting.

Letscher makes a persuasive conflicted everyman, and he represents the film's sincere, serious side. He shares the private doubts that many teachers undoubtedly face, wondering whether he's actually making a difference in the lives of his students and if the effort he puts into being the best teacher he can be really matters. The film suggests that knowing what you're talking about is perhaps the least important aspect of teaching – it matters, sure, but only if you also know how to work around self-serving principals and school board members, keep easily distracted students interested and find ways to navigate a system that places entirely too much emphasis on standardized tests. I wasn't even a little bit surprised to learn that writer/director Jason Strouse was also an English teacher – the movie frequently feels like an impassioned plea built on firsthand experience.

The movie might have been dull as a purely dramatic exercise (the story of Mitch's moral decision follows an entirely predictable arc, as does the grim tale of a teacher facing sexual misconduct charges), but most of the supporting players devote themselves to making a much sillier sort of film. You've got The Sklar Brothers (Wild Hogs) turning in a few amusing scenes as loopy guidance counselors, Keegan Michael-Key (Key & Peele) generating some laughs as the school's pompous principal, Jamie Kaler (Spanglish) as the jealous Robotics teacher – in other words, a lot of reasonably talented improv comics turning in reasonably amusing bits of mostly-improvised comedy. The jokes are on the gentle side (mostly the kind that a high school teacher would feel comfortable telling his students), but they're not bad.

This is a very small film, and it shows. The sound quality is a little wobbly on occasion, and it's obvious that some of the key supporting players were only available for a day or two of shooting (there are surprisingly few scenes in which most of those actors interact with each other). Strouse's direction style is basically a very faithful imitation of the current trends in the mockumentary format, which means the film generally looks like a less slick version of The Office or Parks & Recreation. Still, it's got a lot of heart, and you sense that with a bigger budget and a little more experience, this group of folks could create something really lovely. If I used a letter grade system, I'd give it a B- and a “Good job! Keep studying!” note written in the margins.


Teacher of the Year

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 80 minutes
Release Year: 2015