Inspirational in all the right ways, “Front of the Class” — the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s latest pre-Christmas showcase — leaves no heartstring unplucked in presenting the true story of Brad Cohen, who grew up with Tourette syndrome and overcame its frustrating effects to establish himself as a popular teacher. During the second half, the movie becomes so soft you can practically gum it, but by then star Jimmy Wolk has won the audience over with an inordinately likable performance in this adroitly assembled underdog tale.
Narrated by the protagonist and looking back periodically to show him as a boy, the pic is most powerful in some of those flashback sequences, where Brad endures abuse from other kids and school administrators for the yelps, tics and outbursts — before Tourette syndrome had been diagnosed as a neurological disorder — that they perceive as clowning and disruptiveness. “I can’t help it,” the boy insists, despite urges to exercise self-control by his stern father (Treat Williams) and the efforts of his at-her-wit’s-end mother (Patricia Heaton) to prove that some unknown condition, not misbehavior, is responsible.
One surprising act of kindness helps ease his suffering at school, motivating the adult Brad to become a teacher. Yet his search to land a job is plagued by ignorance regarding how the disease works, despite Brad’s eagerness to defuse the problem by addressing it head-on.
Rejections pile up but, well, Hallmark wouldn’t have been interested if the later chapters were all sour, would they? Even so, as adapted by director Peter Werner and writer Tom Rickman, the movie maintains a brisk pace that keeps the viewer in Brad’s corner as he struggles with dating (“You have such a great attitude about your… .” one girl says, her voice trailing off) and his dad’s lack of faith in him and wins over fellow teachers along with his students.
In its 233 previous “Hall of Fame” installments, Hallmark has a commendable history of exploring disabilities — the recent “Sweet Nothing in My Ear” comes to mind — but this movie is notable inasmuch as it takes a condition frequently dismissed as a laugh line and unearths the humanity surrounding it. By the time an adorable moppet in Brad’s class turns out to have cancer, the lion’s share of the audience will have already fully succumbed to Wolk’s charms — and more cynical bastards won’t hang in there that long, anyway.
So while the lesson plan is surely familiar, “Front of the Class” manages to fit right in with a brand name that represents one of TV’s longest-running class acts.