A class act among mockumentaries, “Chalk” takes a lovingly exaggerated look at the frustrations and rewards of being a high school teacher. Filtering one school year through the eyes of three young instructors and a rookie administrator, this loosely scripted satire mostly steers clear of cheap shots and over-the-top gags, balancing its comic observations with a real measure of affection for teachers and students alike. Fests and arthouse distribs will certainly want a piece of “Chalk,” whose pencil-sharp ensemble took top acting honors at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Though clearly influenced by the faux-verite comedies of Christopher Guest, “Chalk” looks and plays more like an actual documentary, not the least because of it was shot on digital video at an Austin, Texas, high school and features a supporting cast of real-life students and teachers. And where Guest’s films have tended to skewer eccentric performers and prima donnas — the theater company in “Waiting for Guffman,” the folk musicians in “A Mighty Wind” — scribe-helmer Mike Akel and co-writer Chris Mass draw on their own teaching experience to essentially poke fun at themselves.
Kicking off with the announcement that “50% of teachers quit in the first three years,” pic ponders this grim statistic by observing four relatively young and inexperienced staffers at Harrison High. Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) is an awkward first-year history teacher who stammers through his lectures and has trouble controlling, let alone connecting with, his students.
His polar opposite is Mr. Stroope (played by Mass), a fatuous egotist who is dead-set on winning Teacher of the Year and not above enlisting his students to campaign for his victory.
Distaff angle is provided by Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer, Troy’s wife), a svelte P.E. teacher with a butch haircut and a militaristic regard for following the rules. She frequently vents her complaints — most of them about other teachers — to recently anointed assistant principal Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), who is completely overwhelmed by her new job.
Mixing deadpan fly-on-the-classroom-wall footage with more illuminating personal interviews, “Chalk” observes its primary foursome and their student interactions with what could be termed a mercifully funny eye. Reined in by their own awareness of life in front of the blackboard, Akel and Mass avoid condescending to their characters or stooping for mean-spirited laughs, instead grounding the picture with a level of emotional credibility and scenic detail rarely achieved (or even aimed for) in the mock-doc format.
Janelle Schremmer balances Coach Webb’s Type A abrasiveness with its natural side effect — a deep loneliness — while her enthusiasm for helping teachers and students get in shape, often through butt-swinging yoga moves, gives her character a nutty integrity.
As Mr. Stroope, the closest person in the film to a pure caricature, Mass radiates so much boisterous energy and goes so deep into the character’s bullying arrogance and smarmy self-worship that one can’t help but buy it. Haragan plays the harried assistant principal beautifully straight, delivering a sympathetic portrait of grace cracking under pressure.
But the acting standout is Troy Schremmer, hugely sympathetic as the shy, droning, slightly pedantic Mr. Lowrey. His growth as a teacher and gradual gaining of respect from his colleagues and students — aided by a school-sponsored spelling bee for teachers trying to master hip-hop slang, an inspired conceit — is one of pic’s most rewarding developments. By the end, it’s impossible not to wish him well.