Enslaved by the Bell
If Kevin Williamson has anything to say about it, the good works of noble movie schoolteachers like Mr. Chips and Miss Dove and Mr. Holland will be wiped out in one fell swoop. In their place, the creator of TV's hormonal Dawson's Creek series proposes an unmitigated horror -- a high school teacher so consumed by bitterness and spite that her every corpuscle is dedicated to destroying the young lives she is supposed to be nurturing.
What the heck. It's only a movie. Teaching Mrs. Tingle, with the usually graceful and elegant Helen Mirren in the role of the history teacher from hell, exploits every opportunity to go over the top with its comic portrait of a tyrant with a heart of stone. And that, of course, is precisely the kind of monster all those algebra-tormented teenagers chomping popcorn at the multiplex will have paid their eight bucks to see. She's the personification of every grown-up crime, real or imagined, ever committed against adolescence. Take your choice between oppressors -- Mrs. Tingle or the Blair Witch.
For his part, first-time director Williamson acknowledges that finally getting this long-shelved script to the screen is an act of revenge come to fruition: In his high school days, he says, a pinched, disapproving Tingle type almost put his writing career asunder before it got started. But our hero persevered (as does the teenage writer-heroine of the movie), and he remains tuned in to the fevers and traumas of postmodern growing-up. We have him to thank, after all, for writing the Scream movies directed by slasher king Wes Craven.
For Ms. Mirren, an Oscar-nominated mainstay of British period dramas, sharing the screen with a trio of newly minted teen icons (Katie Holmes, Barry Watson and Marisa Coughlan) looks to be a brave, if curious, career choice. Early in the proceedings, this estimable actress gets to properly poison the atmosphere. Buttoned into her stern black business suit, the fearsome Mrs. T. cuts a swath through a student-packed corridor at small-town Grandsboro High School. She tongue-lashes the hapless kids in her American history class. She even lays a little blackmail on the school principal (Michael McKean), who's detested her for 20 years. But Mirren's opportunities are limited. Before she can shed any more light on a dark soul, Williamson has Mrs. Tingle taken captive in her own house by the trio of teens, who lash their unjust tormentor to her bed, tie a scarf over her mouth and effectively remove her from the movie for the next 45 minutes.
This is a canny move, I suppose. Because if there's something this picture's target audience wants to experience even more than the fantasy of a nasty authority figure neatly bound and gagged, it's another full-scale immersion in teen anxiety. To that end, Holmes (who plays "Joey" on Dawson's Creek) gives us Leigh Ann Watson, the overachieving writer-in-the-making whose long-suffering mom is a waitress and who needs to win a scholarship to get to college. Marisa Coughlan's tart, perky Jo Lynn Jordan, with traumas of her own, is a budding actress with a taste for melodrama -- and Leigh Ann's best friend. Barry Watson's Luke Churner is the requisite hunk, a sensitive-teen type -- but one who takes no guff from anyone. When the thoroughly monstrous Mrs. Tingle accuses the three of them of cheating, their futures are threatened. So they traipse off to her Gothic horror of a house and, after failing to reason with her, take her captive and plot revenge as she might.
Want to know the depth of Mrs. Tingle's depravity? The woman listens to classical music, for God's sake.
She also has a gift for manipulating her captors' fears and insecurities. In her gagless moments, at least, she plays the two girls against each other and foments the inevitable Final Confrontation. Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that, while Mirren's venomous outpourings have a cartoon-strip quality, the movie's teen heroes get most of the well-tuned lines. "Chill on the hair products," Leigh Ann counsels her overwrought friend. "The fumes are going straight up your nose."
A little later, Jo Lynn gets the chance to carp to Mrs. T.: "I can't believe you don't have a TV. I mean it's like not having toilet paper!" Deprived of Oprah and Jerry, the kid launches her Linda Blair impression, complete with convulsions and multilingual curses for the imagined exorcists in the room. Poor Mirren, a captive audience if there ever was one, has to lie there and watch.
So do we, and that's a mixed blessing. Teaching Mrs. Tingle is flecked with delicious malice, and the kids -- especially newcomer Coughlan -- perform with verve and high energy. But this entry in the teen-anxiety sweepstakes might have finished even higher if Williamson didn't take his villainess out of commission for so long and if, to start with, he had cast an actress with nastier potential. As it is, Mirren's delicate soulfulness keeps shining through Mrs. Tingle's evil.
On the other hand, this is late August. It's hot out there, school is about to start, and any teen with emotional grievances -- which is to say every teen on the planet -- could do a lot worse than head down to the multiplex to get some vicarious payback on all the dictators and tyrants who've been messing with his or her head up to now. Kevin Williamson knows exactly how kids feel and how to reach them.
As for beloved Mr. Chips, the dude is history.
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