Giving the impression that it thinks it’s a lot tougher and hard-hitting than it is, “Dangerous Minds” is a kid-gloves treatment of the problems in urban public schools. Providing no social context for the issues it would like to confront and virtually no life for its characters outside the classroom, this earnest, sweet-natured inspirational drama almost seems like something from another, more innocent era. Just too soft and eager to please, pic will have trouble scraping by with passing grades at the box office.
Given the harsh realities of underfunded schools, weapons in classrooms, drugs, gangs and related ills, this story of a “white-bread” teacher who turns some mostly minority students’ lives around with a little poetry plays like a liberal’s fairy tale. Sure, these students might be insolent and have an attitude problem about schoolwork, but if you dangle the right carrot in front of them, they come around and show that they’re all good kids at heart.
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It’s too bad the film feels so fanciful, since it’s based on a true-life memoir of a teacher who apparently accomplished what’s depicted herein. A dressed-down Michelle Pfeiffer plays LouAnne Johnson, an ex-Marine who turns up at Parkmont High for a job interview and is immediately thrust into teaching English to some “rejects from hell” who have outlasted a succession of instructors.
Realizing she needs to grab their attention fast, LouAnne supervises a half-baked karate demonstration, which sets her at odds with the soft-spoken, by-the-book principal (Courtney B. Vance). As if her students were dogs waiting for biscuits, she keeps offering them rewards — candy bars, A grades at the outset, dinner in a fancy restaurant — for their positive participation in class.
Most simplistically of all, she constantly relates her teaching to the most cliched aspects of the students’ environments — namely drugs and violence — in an attempt to get them to relate to it. She teaches Bob Dylan song lyrics as poetry, pointing out the possibly drug-related meanings of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for instance, then tries to slide the students without a bump into reading Dylan Thomas. A little poetry might be good for the soul, but it’s not at all clear from “Dangerous Minds” how it manages to turn these kids’ precarious lives around.
Also against common practice, LouAnne becomes personally involved in some of her more promising students’ lives, advising the insightful Callie (Bruklin Harris) through her pregnancy, making the resentful Raul (Renoly Santiago) feel he has potential, and trying to intervene in the self-destructive macho behavior of the studly Emilio (Wade Dominguez), withsadly futile results. Each of these little episodes, like the film itself, is interesting enough to hold interest while it’s playing out, but in no case does it get to the bottom of the issues it raises.
Although shot in Northern California, the picture shows virtually nothing of city life beyond the schoolyard, except when LouAnne briefly visits the homes of her chosen students. There’s no portrait of the kids as part of a larger culture , no sense of other forces — inspirational or oppressive — working on their lives, no discussion of the currents in society that inform the attitudes of the students, no presentation of their personal lives, emotions or interests. In short, they’re given little dimension.
The same could be said of LouAnne, who lives alone and has absolutely no friends or acquaintances except for her smoking-and-wheezing fellow teacher (George Dzundza). This can be explained partly by the fact that the character of her boyfriend, played by Andy Garcia, was entirely eliminated from the film after it was shot.
But the result is that the film is left with no way to examine her character, background, motivation, fears or anything except her natural gumption and determination (presumably strengthened during her years in the Marines) to connect with these kids. Pfeiffer tackles the part with obvious dedication, but she’s thwarted from the get-go by the heavily proscribed nature of the role as written.
Among the kids, special focus is put on three of them and, given the opportunity, the actors playing them — Dominguez, Harris and Santiago — stir strong sympathy and show a good deal of promise. No one else, teen or adult, has the chance to be anything but a cardboard cutout.
Veteran Canadian TV director John N. Smith got this shot at a Hollywood feature on the basis of his superb miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent,” but that work was as trenchant and incisive as this one is fuzzy-headed and indistinct.
Ronald Bass’ screenplay promotes the kindly idea that, if you give kids some special attention and engage their interest, they’ll learn. That’s all very well and good, but it doesn’t begin to deal with the real-life crisis the film pretends to address.
Music track offers some lively moments, while tech aspects are modestly in line with the film’s intimate, limited scale.