Each generation is treated to inspirational movies about educators who reform misbehaving kids, from “Blackboard Jungle” and “To Sir, With Love” to “Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds.” Enter this latest Johnson & Johnson-sponsored telepic, which won’t earn high marks for creativity but features a winning performance by Matthew Perry as too-good-to-be-true (though he is, at least in broad strokes) teacher Ron Clark. Director Randa Haines also elicits solid work from the youthful co-stars, adding up to an appealing (if rather elementary) equation.
Given the penchant for lionizing teachers in lieu of paying them a competitive wage, Clark’s diligence shepherding along struggling Harlem school kids has a surprisingly happy ending, inasmuch as he wrote a New York Times bestseller based on the “essential 55 rules” (guidelines about respect and manners, mostly) that he presented to his charges.
At the outset, Clark bids farewell to North Carolina and migrates to New York City, determined to make a difference by taking a teaching job in the toughest-of-tough districts. In the interim, he toils as a waiter and falls for an attractive co-worker (Melissa De Sousa) who becomes his sounding board as the kids heap abuse upon him through the first half of the movie.
Unlike many films of this variety, there’s no real signature moment where the worm turns, which is perhaps more realistic (it’s based on a true story, after all) but also obscures what transformed these little hooligans into solid citizens, other than their teacher’s commitment. The prevailing message is that no one believed in these kids and they feared abandonment, but that feels facile and a little too “Oprah”-ish, given the woes faced by so many public schools.
“Nobody wants them, and I do,” Clark tells the skeptical principal (Ernie Hudson). “So what’s the problem?”
There are lots of problems, of course, from winning skeptical parents over to charming hostile kids burdened with adult responsibilities. The most significant of these is Shameika (Hannah Hodson), a natural leader who initially plays a pint-sized version of Louis Gossett Jr.’s role in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” trying to wear Clark down until he quits.
He perseveres, however, rappin’ history in order to make dead white guys relevant and learning to jump rope as a means of bonding with his students, whom he hunts down after hours, on weekends, whenever. Fortunately, Perry is so inherently likable as to elevate the material above this familiar terrain.
In keeping with the genre, the action builds toward a climactic test that will demonstrate (or not) how well Mr. Clark has succeeded. And while the movie earns no extra-credit points, TNT can derive some pride from having passed this basic exercise with better-than-average marks.