George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

The Cinema of Educational Despair: A Bad Narrative Reinforced

It’s only a movie, folks . . .

March 29, 2012

The least productive current narrative about public education goes something like this. Our schools, especially high schools, are failing. There is a predominance of ineffective teachers. Short of closing bad schools, firing bad teachers and sending kids to charter schools, there is little we can do to change this. Most good teachers, buried alive in the testing mania, are impotent to deal with the system. For the general public this narrative, partially reinforced by films like Waiting for Superman, provides a misguided message of total failure. For teachers struggling in underfunded schools, it encourages anger and self-pity rather than productive action.

To then have a major film come along that reinforces this narrative and takes it even further into bleak anger and despair infuriates me.

So it is with the new film Detachment, and what makes this film even more concerning for me is that it is good enough to be potentially seductive for many viewers. The cast, which includes Adrien Brody, James Caan and Marcia Gay Harden, is first rate. So is the directing, and as a character study the film is engaging. However, this is also a film about a public school and, as a commentary on education, Detachment is a disaster.

Movies about teachers and high schools have rarely been realistic or enlightening. The teachers are most often either heroic Lone Ranger type characters who magically reach previously unreachable students and transcend bad schools (e.g. Dead Poets Society, To Sir With Love, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver), or total incompetents (most of the other teachers in any of those films). The schools are usually terrible, with difficult students and dim administrators.

But at least most of those films were mildly hopeful. Detachment takes the struggle of teachers and schools to a new level of relentless bleakness.

Two of the purposes of cinema focused on social issues ought to be enlightening the audience and illuminating ways to solve our problems. Instead Detachment, reinforcing a counterproductive narrative, is more likely to become part of the problem.

None of the teachers are good, Brody's Henry Barthes included. He reaches kids on a personal level but mostly just preaches to them. He says, "If you have something meaningful to share, they'll listen." And share he does. And they listen. He's a good preacher.

All the teachers are disillusioned. Many are in despair. They all wanted to make a difference but have failed, undone by the kids, the parents and the system. As one teacher says, "We're failing. We failed in the sense that we've let everyone down, including ourselves." Another one leaves a ranting voicemail ripping kids and parents before he commits suicide!

The teachers' view of the students is cynical. One teacher who pops pills all day says, "If I didn't take these things, I'd be committing mass murder with half of these parents. I'd be helping them throw their f______ kids out the window!" The school psychologist has a total meltdown and shouts at a student, "You are a shallow, disgusting creature . . . . Your life will basically become a carnival of pain, and when you can't stand it . . . it will get worse!"

The students themselves are mostly reprobates, disinterested and/or angry and/or lost. They continue the long tradition in films about high schools, reinforcing the narrative of adolescent pathology.

The central student character is a stereotypical bright, lost kid, demeaned by her father, overweight from binge eating, and isolated from her peers. In the most telling moment in the film, she comes to Barthes and he is too emotionally crippled to help her. The scene reinforces the pervasive theme of teacher impotence.

The only group that comes off worse than the teachers and kids is the parents. The few depicted are terrible, and only two show up on Open School Night.

The ending perfectly highlights the central message. Barthes reads lines from The Fall of the House of Usher: " . . . I looked upon the bleak walls . . . . upon a few white trunks of decayed trees with an utter depression of soul . . . There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart," while we watch thousands of ripped out book pages blowing across the desolate school corridors. Fade out. Get the picture?

By the end of the film, I wanted to fire the teachers and close the school. This is not good!

Disillusioned teachers, lost in struggling schools with little support and test score pressures, could find the film a cathartic validation of all their frustrations. The film plays into those feelings very effectively. For critics of our public schools, this will validate the half-truths they already believe.

But in its representation of public schools, the film is a simplistic rant. The screenwriter, Carl Lund, is an ex-teacher. It clearly was therapeutic for him. That doesn't make it good for us, and especially not for anyone trying to deal effectively with our present problems in public education.

There is nothing illuminating here. There are no groups of teachers working collaboratively to bring about change. There are no bright, mature students challenging teachers or offering to help them change things. And there are no enlightened, committed parents.

Why not a film about really smart, dedicated, politically savvy teachers and students who take on a group of dim political leaders and turn their school around? Imagine the impact a film with that narrative could have.

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