Inspiration and agitation neatly combine in “Class Act.” Sara Sackner’s documentary expands from admiring portrait of a stellar drama teacher into an impassioned call for action to save disappearing U.S. public-school arts programs. Pic offers a strong riposte to the controversial national “No Child Left Behind” act that forced new emphasis on test results over traditional well-rounded education values already deteriorated by funding cuts. Pubcast seems a natural destination, ditto grassroots-organizing exposure. Residual “Super Size Me” oomph might get this effort from the same production company some theatrical exposure, though it won’t strike the same pop-zeitgeist nerve.
Garrulous, inexhaustible Jay W. Jensen — an octogenarian still busy with various teaching duties 15 years after official retirement from Miami Beach Senior High — can count thesp Andy Garcia, “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner, songwriter Desmond Child, film casting director Debra Zane, Broadway producer Adam Epstein and many other luminaries among his grateful former pupils.
But he gets equally enthusiastic testimonials from a rabbi, a hair-transplant surgeon and an attorney, who all feel his classes and productions gave them life-enhancing confidence and people skills. Indeed, pic’s convincingly argued point (ballasted by numerous onscreen experts) is that arts education is no disposable extra, but a key element in developing all-around creativity, self-worth, problem-solving skills and the very ability to learn.
Studies cited here prove their beneficial effect on delinquency, advancement to college, even biological gray-matter development itself. The involving emotional stimulation of music, visual arts and drama instruction also provides an enormous incentive for kids to stay in school.
In a particularly depressing irony, a primarily African-American institution is seen stripped of all music instruction — John Philip Sousa Middle School.
Conservatives who might embrace Jensen’s volunteerism as an alternative to actual funding might back off when they discover he’s gay, and tours with a one-man-show about his close (but platonic) friendship with the late Tennessee Williams.
Deftly if somewhat episodically cross-cutting between different narrative talents and nationwide commentators, “Class Act” finds numerous other educators and activists keeping alive — with or without public funding — such programs.
Pic engineers its own inspirational uplift, but clearly the national trend is ebbing fast downhill. As one interviewee suggests, we will all soon end up in the short-attention-spanned, barely-literate clutches of a next generation whose improved education — one that simply matched prior standards — we refused to bankroll.
Editing is sharp, use of existing music lively, other package aspects well-honed.