Fifty percent of teachers quit within their first three years, or so a title card at the start of the scrappy mock documentary "Chalk" informs us. And to what should we attribute this depressing statistic? It's hard to say, exactly, from watching the movie -- which more closely resembles an affectionate locker room towel-snap than a hard-nosed expose -- but let's just say that despite many moments of intimate, unguarded emotion so quietly cringe-worthy you may feel your organs blushing, educators looking to mine it for improvement milestones may be disappointed.
At Harrison High, students and teachers spend their long, torpid days eyeing each other warily, unsure of what to make of one another. Nobody seems quite sure what they're doing there. On the first day of class, shy, awkward Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a first-year history teacher, quickly establishes himself as a terrible educator and useless authority figure, while down the hall the gregarious third-year veteran Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass) cheerfully confesses that he doesn't understand the difference between forming relationships with the kids and forming friendships shortly before kicking off his campaign for teacher of the year.
Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), a bossy and officious pixie who makes a point of stating that not all P.E. teachers are gay, is excited that her best friend Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) has been promoted to assistant principal. Finally, Coach Webb thinks, someone important will listen to her. Mrs. Reddell, meanwhile, is stunned to learn that she'll be working three times as much as she was before, and she's overwhelmed by her friend's relentless demands that she enforce even the most inconsequential rules.
Co-written by former teachers Mike Akel and Mass and directed by Akel, "Chalk" was developed through improvisation all the way through the process, from writing through production and post-production. The final film was edited together from more than 60 hours of footage that yielded sometimes unexpected subplots.
As popular as this approach to filmmaking has become since directors such as Mike Leigh began to explore the possibilities of truly character-driven drama in the most organic sense of the word, "Chalk" avoids some of the pitfalls of the mock-doc by showing real affection and empathy for its characters, whose funny lives of quiet desperation inspire more than their share of tenderness.
Unlike the Christopher Guest comedies "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and most recently the disappointing "For Your Consideration," Akel and Mass genuinely like their characters and empathize with their problems. The source of the movie's humor is pain caused by humiliation, loneliness, the feeling of being misunderstood. It's hard to think of a scene as excruciating as the one in which Mr. Lowrey loses the respect of his class right in front of his eyes -- or as funny.
It's no wonder that the students seem to spend most of their time gazing at their teachers in bemused wonder. The cast of high school kids is made up of Mass and Akel's former students, who agreed to participate in the film over a summer in Austin, Texas, sometimes traveling long distances to be there.
It's hard to blame Mr. Stroope, Coach Webb, Mrs. Reddell and Mr. Lowrey for behaving as if they were still in high school because, well, they are. And "Chalk" lets us in on how hard it must be to live an adult life in an adolescent universe, where everything you do, say and wear is just too funny for words.
"Chalk." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223. Director/co-writer Mike Akel and co-writer Chris Mass are scheduled to appear today and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:50 p.m.