“Chalk,” a mockumentary created by and about teachers, begins with an info bite telling us that 50 percent of all members of this profession quit within their first three years. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why that is true. Slight but distinctive, the stories that unfold make for a winning deadpan comedy, both steadily entertaining and remarkably real.
In verite mode, writer-director Mike Akel and cowriter Chris Mass — who are also teachers and comedians — present the teacher universe, with details ranging from classroom lessons to teacher lunch gab. The conduits are four educators at a generic-looking public high school. Over the course of a year, we become immersed in their experiences: parent-teacher conferences; intra-faculty squabbles; occupational hazards such as paper cuts.
Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a nervous, ineffectual newcomer, can’t connect with his students, who, in one of their more painful demonstrations of their rejection of him, steal his chalk.
Mr. Stroope (played by co-writer Mass), is chummy with his pupils, whom he shamelessly recruits to assist him in his campaign to be voted teacher of the year.
Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), a rule freak with a crush on Mr. Lowrey, wants everyone to know that “not all P.E. teachers are gay.”
Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), appointed assistant principal after “Mr. Fletcher was found guilty,” works oppressively late hours and feels happiest when she can substitute-teach.
The movie lacks the zip and punch necessary to be a sparkler in the vein of Christopher Guest’s
mockumentaries, which have obviously inspired Akel and Mass. Also, it contains little dramatic thrust, and it’s hard to believe that its characters wouldn’t mention any of the woes plaguing public education today. It could use some interesting supporting characters.
But this is overall a funny, credible and contagiously warmhearted depiction of a profession that seldom sees such realistic cinematic treatment. The acting by the non-Hollywood cast (most of whom have teaching as well as theatrical experience) is so stellar that you nearly forget you’re watching fiction.
Akel and Mass — names to watch for — also include some nugget moments amid the mundane atmosphere. In a scene worthy of mockumentary time-capsule inclusion, Mr. Stroope instructs his students not to use “big words,” lest they appear smarter than him.
A spelling bee in which the teachers do the spelling and the kids supply the words — hip-hop lingo sets the tone — also merits mention.
Starring Troy Schremmer, Chris Mass, Janelle Schremmer, Shannon Haragan
Written by Mike Akel, Chris Mass
Directed by Mike Akel
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes