FLOPPY DESK

High school teacher LouAnne Johnson gave the title My Posse Don't Do Homework to the 1992 book she wrote about her experiences teaching gifted but underachieving inner-city kids in California. The producers of the film version have changed the title to Dangerous Minds, which is meaningless, but somehow more painless than My Posse Don't Do Homework. Johnson's title has a hopelessly corny, liberal-white-bread ring--it's like a '70s schoolteacher calling a similar book Dig It, Man, Homework Just Ain't Cool. Dangerous Minds is in the long tradition of films such as The Blackboard Jungle, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver and Conrack. It's about a courageous teacher taking on a classroom full of tough--or tough-to-reach--kids and turning them on to the joys of learning. There's no need to be cynical about this--it doubtless happens all the time. But the films made about such teachers, though they're often enjoyable, tend to breed cynicism at their patness and sentiment.

That, sadly, includes Dangerous Minds. Director John N. Smith (The Boys of St. Vincent) tries hard to keep the film dry, and his work is lean and fast and highly respectable. But in the end, with LouAnne's kids spouting Dylan Thomas as they beg her not to quit, Dangerous Minds goes just as moist as any other "teach" flick. More so, come to think of it, than the fairly restrained Conrack and Stand and Deliver.

As a film, there's little more to be said about Dangerous Minds. It's not really very good, but it's not hard to sit through, either. Smith has a good sense of pace, and the film reportedly underwent significant prerelease cutting, so its 94 minutes fly by quickly.

The actors who play the kids are engaging, and good old George Dzundza is funny as the veteran teacher who helps LouAnne get the job. The only real reason to see the film is Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne, another of her worthy star turns in an unworthy vehicle. She's heartbreakingly beautiful, and with her slightly strangled drawl and the firmness with which she stands, she convincingly suggests LouAnne's background as a Marine and a veteran of domestic abuse--a physically tiny woman who's had to learn to make herself heard and seen.

Pfeiffer's strong performance partially carries one past the film's cheesier notions, like the two-dimensional villain principal (Courtney B. Vance) or the choice--not by the real-life Johnson but by screenwriter Ronald Bass--to make Bob Dylan the poet with which LouAnne turns her class on to poetry. The Minnesota bard bridges the gap between her kids and Dylan Thomas. I love Bob Dylan, and I wouldn't deny that he's one of the better American folk poets of this century. But I'd guess that modern-day high school kids, black or white, wouldn't regard Bob Dylan as much less of a geezer than Dylan Thomas. If they knew who either of them was.

 
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