Film Reviews

Mitchell 20: Education Documentary Shot in Phoenix Stands and Delivers

"Oddly enough," says Randy Murray, producer and co-director of Mitchell 20: Teacher Quality Is the Answer producer, "we're blowing away the other films. A great example is — I think — a Tuesday afternoon; we had an audience of 80 at a screening, and 17 of the other theaters were completely empty," at downtown Phoenix's AMC Arizona Center, where the film's been extended twice and is currently scheduled through November 3.

As befits a man who hastens to confess that he's bad at promoting his first commercially released feature in 20 years in the business, Murray quickly adds that Footloose is playing a lot more screens Valleywide, so the stat isn't quite as impressive as it sounds. Oy, these documentarians and their obsession with facts.

Murray's film covers about three years with a group of teachers at Mitchell Elementary in Phoenix's urban Isaac School District. Daniela Robles, who had become a National Board Certified Teacher (a grueling process that only about 3 percent of U.S. schoolteachers have successfully undergone), decided to recruit her co-workers to make the same professional leap, and 19 of them came on board.

The filmmakers assumed that they were documenting a feel-good story about a little-known option for increasing empowerment and effectiveness in classrooms. "What I didn't realize," Murray says, "was how unique it is to do this in a cohort with 19 teachers at the same time."

About half of first-time NBCT applicants do not qualify for certification. "It just got really interesting," Murray says. "Life happened. Not that we wanted our teachers to struggle . . . We found we were getting something that would be a better tool to find out what was happening.

"It started off when the first batch of results came in, and they weren't what we expected. We were caught off guard. And yet, that was when we realized three-act plays are successful because when we get knocked down, it makes the champions in our lives more resolute."

That was the case with the Mitchell 20. Many got bad news when they logged in on the day results were announced. Like most rejected NBCT candidates, they jumped back on the horse and reworked their applications, and despite losing some team members over the years, the group retains a bond and a commitment to better experiences as educators and better educations for Phoenix's children.

So, it's a story within a story, the inspiration of mentors who face obstacles and take what they can from a journey, whatever the destination. Swimming is good for you even if you never win an Olympic medal.

I watched Mitchell 20, and I get the idea, but I wound up asking myself why it's relatively popular (because it is, expanding its release to other large U.S. markets even as you read this) and whether a movie is the ideal vehicle for this message. It's 77 minutes long. You could skip watching it and spend that 77 minutes with your kids — or organizing screenings for your school board and elected officials, as the producers suggest.

The film is often wordy, boring, meandering, contradictory, and jargony, despite its upsides — it's narrated by Edward James Olmos and has a killer soundtrack by local musicians that you can buy. (It costs just a little more than a movie ticket, is far more entertaining, and, like the film, 50 percent of its profits go to a scholarship fund for teacher development.)

I get the feeling that teachers like it, which is fine. "My favorite compliment," says Murray, "is this is the first movie they've seen that captures the essence of what their day is like." (Though that's sad, indeed, if it's accurate, because what I would like to see — kids learning stuff — takes up very little screen time.)

Most of us attended public schools, right? And since then, we've been members of families and other groups. We've had jobs, at least sometimes. We know that the people we spend the day with are predominantly responsible for whether we accomplish what we're trying to, whether there's any joy and fulfillment in our daily strivings, how we feel about the world and our community and the future.

We also know that teachers aren't the only workers who are frustrated by workplace obstacles and a lack of freedom to do their best. And not every teacher has the chops to be that life-changing angel for a child — but most of them do care and would jump at the chance to improve. Success is more fun than failure.

Maybe you remember when it wasn't quite as challenging, when more of our parents were present and employed, when fewer of them were threatened with deportation, when it wasn't considered radical heresy to say that people who happen to live with disadvantages might be good, smart, creative people who not only deserve opportunities but will run with them and take the rest of us along, when, frankly, kids were able to sit still and be quiet and pay attention and parents were more involved.

Those halcyon days were at least partly an illusion, of course. Abuse and disabilities were hidden or ignored. Racial and sexual discrimination were ongoing — they just went underground after we agreed they were "wrong."

Mass media makes us more aware of life's crappy injustices and pulls out the rug of hope at the same time, fostering a climate of anxiety and apathy.

So I think that this film, despite revealing no big secrets or magic weapons, is speaking to our culture's overall, critical-mass-reaching dream of getting control back into the hands of people who know what's what: Occupy Your World. Ordinary people can take care of it. Everyone has — and should have — a shot at doing better.

Teachers are some of the most poorly managed professionals we have, and federal agencies, legislatures, and local school administrators catch a lot of heat for drawing salaries to set standards and make decisions. But we need those parts of the system, too. The teachers in the film complain about all the stuff they have to do to meet bureaucratic requirements (again, no big surprise) and act like whiny toddlers when a few get reassigned in order to spread their spark to other schools in the district.

Yes, teaching is really hard, and it's probably the second most important job in society after actual parenting. It doesn't get the respect and support it needs, and when we screw it up, the repercussions are heartbreaking and wide-ranging. But a film like Mitchell 20 had better ignite more than just sympathy; otherwise, it's the equivalent of Facebook activism in public, exchanging your sofa and laptop for a bouncy cinema seat with a cupholder.

Is it a good enough movie to generate a movement? Cross your fingers and listen to that soundtrack one more time.