A class act
But Dangerous Minds could've been a little more dangerous

by Scott Snyder

In 1989, Robin Williams and Dead Poets Society inspired a generation of college students to look at teaching as a potential career. I was one of those college students. I have since left the profession; it turns out I'm no John Keating, and Dead Poets Society doesn't show Keating doing all that preparation

Dangerous Minds, the new Hollywood Pictures release starring Michelle Pfeiffer and based on LouAnne Johnson's book My Posse Don't Do Homework, could have a similar effect on career-seekers. But, to its credit, Dangerous Minds is in many ways more honest than its private-school predecessor about the hazards and difficulties of the education biz. This film has serious flaws, but it gets a lot right, too.

Dangerous Minds is based on LouAnne Johnson's own experience of trying to rescue her students from their urban malaise. Johnson is an ex-Marine who, with no clue what she is getting herself into, takes a job teaching "Academy" classes. The assistant principal describes her students as "passionate, energetic, and challenging." That ain't the half of it. She walks in on her first day, and the class, smug at having summarily dispensed with their original teacher and three substitutes, ignores her completely. When she finally gets their attention, they call her Whitebread: "Hey," one of them says, "Whitebread wants to know what happened to the substitute." Short takes

One gentleman-scholar comes up to the front and informs her that "we killed the bitch." "I fed her to my dogs," he says. "But I'll eat you." Johnson is, of course, floored. Marine or no Marine, she's simply not ready for this terrorism. She gives it a game try, though, good teaching-school grad that she is. She writes the kid's name on the board. When the class erupts in jeers and cacophony, she's outta there.

Pfeiffer handles the transition from panicky Whitebread to respected guru remarkably well, considering she has only an hour and a half to do what took the real LouAnne Johnson most of a school year. You don't exactly believe that she's an ex-Marine ("Long sleeves hide the tattoos," she explains), but she shows a plausible dismay at having every pedagogical trick she knows thrown back in her face. Johnson is incredibly naive, but she wises up quick, and within the bounds of a somewhat overstated script, Pfeiffer pulls it off.

After her first day's slap in the face, Johnson works on trying to "get their attention," as colleague and (inexplicably) old friend Hal Griffith (George Dzundza) recommends. As a former educator, I'm betting she spent dozens of hours on this problem. We see one minute. Granted, teacher preparation doesn't make for captivating footage; but the epiphany scene -- Pfeiffer sits in bed, pondering, then she sits bolt upright, then she springs to the floor -- it's just not enough.

The trick she uses is, well ... bribery: she hands out candy bars and takes her students to the amusement park. I'm not entirely sure that, in the real world, this would work any better than writing names on the board, and a handful of great performances is all that makes it work here. But it does, and Johnson can then turn her students into poetry critics, using the work of Bob Dylan to make poetry accessible to them. I don't know why they found Bob Dylan accessible. But I went with it; the actors who played Johnson's students charmed me into it -- particularly Courtney B. Vance and Renoly Santiago, who manage to balance streetwise and vulnerable quite nicely.

For the rest of the film, Johnson uses her newly established status as mentor and all-around good person to influence her students' lives -- not always for the better, which is a nice touch. She knows now how to get their attention, but she doesn't always know what to do with it. She learns as she goes. Another movie might have taken a more simplistic route. Where, oh where?

I went into the theater wanting to like Dangerous Minds a lot. The video for the theme song, Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," and the ads for the movie (which are basically the Coolio video, but shorter) are brisk and sharp; they make you come in from the next room to watch. The ad is one of the few my housemate won't channel-surf away, and my expectations were soaring. Perhaps inevitably, the movie doesn't meet them.

The fault for this lies chiefly in Ronald Bass' script. Clumsy exposition and run-of-the-mill Hollywood storytelling constantly disrupt the movie's narrative flow, and the high-impact picture that Dangerous Minds could've been gets away. Pfeiffer's and the students' charming, savvy performances make Dangerous Minds worth seeing, but they can't rescue it from being disappointing.

Mostly, Bass and director John N. Smith have trouble focusing. The primary conflict of Dangerous Minds -- how you get these kids' attention -- is resolved a little too quickly and too nicely. You bribe them; you let them know you're sincere; then they're putty in your hands. Except it's not as interesting to watch them be putty in Johnson's hands as it was to watch her win them over. All that's left is a series of mini-conflicts, cast and then reeled back in over the course of the last hour of the film.

Thankfully, the love-interest subplot (which was to have featured Andy Garcia) was cut from the film's release version. But the romantic detour Smith avoided is only an extreme example of the trap that Dangerous Minds falls into anyway. Bass and Smith give up the goods too soon; after 45 minutes, you can almost see them off-screen, making "stretch" motions with their hands.

I really wish Dangerous Minds had been a great film. It could've been, but it shares LouAnne Johnson's difficulty. It knows how to get our attention. It doesn't always know what to do with it.

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