Chalk is a mockumentary, or maybe “mockudrama,” but more realistic than most.
It’s done in the style of, say, The Office, where it’s implied that there is a film crew shooting people as they go through their work day, where that material is then supplemented by interview clips of those same people giving commentary.
But whereas that format can be, and often is, played purely for humor, this film about the experience of teaching high school is considerably more realistic and serious than is typical of the genre.
Imagine that some filmmakers decided against doing a documentary—a totally serious documentary—showing life in a high school because of concerns the people would be too self-conscious of the cameras, or even concerns about getting permission from all concerned and legal liability and such. And so they realized, paradoxically, that it would actually be more realistic to take what they learned from real high school and real high school teachers and create a dramatization instead, meant to duplicate as closely as possible the true experience of teaching.
Then imagine a garden variety mockumentary that’s clearly intended as a comedy, like This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, etc.
I would say Chalk is right about dead center between those two. There are without a doubt little elements of The Office-style humor throughout, but the bulk of the characters and incidents feel very real.
I’d love to watch Chalk with people who teach high school for a living, just to see how well they feel it captures the experience. My guess is they’d give it very high marks in that respect.
Where the movie maintains that balance between humor and a serious dramatization, it works. Where it goes in a more clearly serious direction, it works. Only when it strays in the other direction and overdoes the hyperbole and quirkiness to go for a laugh does it miss the mark.
For instance, the teacher who is openly campaigning to be “Teacher of the Year” crosses that line for me and is the weakest of the main characters. It’s not so much that I can’t imagine a teacher being so motivated to get such an award, but the specific things he’s depicted as doing in pursuit of it seem to have been imported from a more typical mockumentary and just don’t fit the feel of this film.
On the other hand, the new teacher who’s transitioning from a white collar computer job in the private sector seems just right to me. His initial nervousness, his stuttering attempts to connect with the students, his frustrated flashes of temper, his shaky attempts to establish his authority in the classroom—this was all so real to me as to make me cringe in sympathy. Yeah, some of his floundering is funny at a certain level, but I bought that character and his struggles.
And I continued to buy it as he made progress during the school year and got into more of a rhythm and did connect to some extent with his students.
One of his key steps forward in that regard comes in one of my favorite scenes, where the students administer a spelling bee to their teachers, and all the words are youth slang like “fo’ shizzle,” “bling bling,” etc. (It’s tough too, because you’re required to specify all apostrophes and dashes and such.)
It would have been good enough if his storyline had just been a heartwarming story of his early struggles followed by making a connection with his students and realizing he really is suited to this and can do some good, but I especially like that the film then unexpectedly went in a little different direction with him. Thought-provoking and, again, very real.
That character I think works the best, but most of the rest of the movie is pretty close. The ritualistically polite, passive aggressively critical job evaluations; the bickering; the time-consuming paperwork and bureaucratic nonsense; the workplace flirting; the friendships; the strains on marriages and outside relationships; the way the students are mostly perceived by teachers as an undifferentiated mass, but can be related to as individuals selectively and infrequently; the awareness that one will have to be able to justify one’s actions to parents and one’s superiors; and on and on—I can easily imagine it happening like that in real life.
The movie opens up with the statement that half of all teachers last three years or less. By the end of the movie, you understand why—this is certainly not a film one would use to recruit folks into the teaching profession—and yet at the same time there are just enough hints of what can be special and rewarding about the profession that you can also at least begin to understand why it’s not more than half that bail out.
A clear thumbs up for Chalk. Thought-provoking, some decent laughs here and there, and a little bit uplifting but not enough to be sappy and unrealistic.