The Hallmark Hall of Fame isn’t known for controversy, though it’s latest movie is auspiciously timed — exalting teachers and the nobility of the homeless when both groups have come under siege as Republican lawmakers try slashing state and federal budgets. That said, this Reagan-era fact-based story is undeniably stirring in a “To Sir, With Love” kind of way, with a radiant Emily VanCamp as the caring young educator determined to reach homeless children. In other words, unless you’re a heartless bastard, “Beyond the Blackboard” ought to help sell Mother’s Day cards.
Stacey Bess (“Brothers and Sisters’?” VanCamp) is a Salt Lake City wife and mother who has harbored dreams of being a teacher. The only available position, alas, is overseeing homeless kids — lumped together in grades one through six — at a rundown facility where they’re warehoused with their parents.
“Six years of school did not prepare me for this,” Stacey laments to her understanding husband (Steve Talley) regarding an assignment her boss (Timothy Busfield) dismisses as “emergency schooling to transient students.”
Not surprisingly, the kids are hard to reach, the administration sees the whole exercise as an obligation, and the parents are skeptical. Yet after considerable frustration, Stacey begins to find avenues to connect with her charges — investing her spare time in redecorating the classroom, enlisting the adults to assist her (in a pre-Hillary Clinton “it takes a village” manner) and even taking one kid whose father gets booted out of the program into her own home.
Happily, a new administrator (Treat Williams) brings a more helpful attitude from above, while events at home somewhat complicate Stacey’s personal situation. For all that, the movie (ably directed by Jeff Bleckner from Camille Thomasson’s adaptation of Bess’ book) is refreshingly free of histrionics or fabricated wrinkles to heighten the drama.
Stacey represents one of those too-good-to-be-true movie teachers, but VanCamp possesses such innate likability that she can make that sense of commitment believable. Nor does it hurt that the producers did an impeccable job casting the various students, including Liam McKanna and Paola Andino as two of Stacey’s more significant pupils.
Despite the quarter-century lapse, the subject matter certainly feels like it could be unfolding right now: Children falling through fissures in the social safety net, while a teacher lobbies for resources to help the neediest and most at-risk kids.
With their semi-sweet undertones, Hallmark movies are usually designed to play in Peoria. Given the current environment, this one might be particularly well-suited — right now, anyway — to play in Wisconsin.