By Tim Cogshell
Teacher of the Year is a smart and funny movie that manages to pull off one of the more difficult balancing acts in filmmaking: it actually is smart while still being funny. It’s smart about education, both as a vocation and as an industry; and it’s both character and dialogue funny, leaning heavily on the free-agent talents of Keegan-Michael Key, half of the comedy duo, Key and Peele. Of late, Key has been a valuable asset in a number of comedies looking for a boost, including a stand-out performance in Pitch Perfect 2. In Teacher of the Year, his name is Principal Douche – though he insists on the french pronunciation. You can imagine the jokes.
Also funny is lead Matt Letscher (Her) as Mitch, a dedicated and long-suffering literature instructor at Truman High, an urban Charter School with an interesting mix of students, parents, and staff – all of whom we spend a bit of time with, several of whom are funny, too.
Mitch has just won Teacher of the Year and is being followed by a documentary crew which gives everyone ample opportunity to speak directly to the camera. This is an overused device that probably should go the way of dialogue cards from the days of silent movies. That notwithstanding, the film advocates, while managing not to become polemical for either the stuff it’s in favor of or the stuff it’s not.
‘Teacher of the Year’ with Matt Letscher.
Writer-director Jason Strouse, plainly likes teachers and kids, and is empathetic to parents. He even understands that wanting to earn a decent (or better than decent) living does not make you evil. He’s less crazy about fancy private schools that handpick kids who have everything and then gives them more.
Also, Strouse has got an ear for teen talk and for the chatter of the teacher’s lounge. Which, as former teacher of youth myself, I remember very well. It’s crazy in the teacher’s lounge. Way crazier than in the classroom, and Mr. Strouse knows this well.
There’s also a bit of “ripped from the headlines” melodrama insinuated into this smart and funny little movie. It’s intended to raise the stakes and it’s not necessary.
Teacher of the Year offers a good understanding of the problems vexing the American education system. The film is serious about them, but it also knows that a lot of the actual people involved are ridiculous, even if their vocation isn’t.
This is a movie that makes you want to call the one teacher that got you through. The one that understood that smart and funny is a perfect combination in the classroom – which is exactly what Teacher of the Year is as a movie.
Teacher of the Year (2015). Direction and screenplay: Jason Strouse. Cast: Matt Letscher. Keegan-Michael Key. Sunny Mabrey. Jamie Kaler. Larry Joe Campbell. Randy Sklar. Jason Sklar. Tamlyn Tomita. Brenda Strong. Caitlin Carmichael. Chris Conner. Eden Riegel. Shari Belafonte. Olivia Crocicchia. Jonathan Goldstein. Gabriel Chavarria.
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/