The screening of Chalk I attended was the only sold-out movie I encountered at Austin Film Festival, and it was on a Tuesday night after the conference had ended. I heard that the previous night's showing of the feature film sold out as well -- and this was at the Arbor's largest screen. Was it because the movie won AFF's narrative feature award? Or was there some sort of word-of-mouth building in town among Austin educators, since teachers were the focus of this film? Before the movie started, Chalk's director Mike Akel asked how many teachers were in the audience, and I saw a large show of hands. It probably didn't hurt that Chalk was filmed in Austin, either.
Chalk uses that mock-documentary style found in The Office to focus on a group of high-school teachers (and one former teacher, now a vice principal) struggling to deal with their jobs in the course of a school year. There's the brand-new teacher, Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), who can't maintain control of his classroom; a comically ambitious, extroverted teacher, Mr. Stroope (co-writer Chris Mass); the short-haired, strident gym teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer); and continually overworked vice-principal Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan). The situations are usually played for laughs, but there are a few touching moments, particularly with Mr. Lowrey as he tries to connect with his students. Since they occasionally look right in the camera and talk to us, we know who has a little crush on whom, who's about to lose their mind, and who wants to strangle certain other teachers.
The audience loved Chalk, and I suspect the teachers were a big factor. They started laughing from the very first moment of the film, a quote that "50 percent of teachers quit within the first three years of teaching." They roared at the copy machine politics, at Mr. Stroop's ambitions to be Teacher of the Year, at the gym teacher's attempts to maintain consistent discipline. Mike Akel and Chris Mass have both worked in schools, and it shows. Mass, as Mr. Stroope, was hilarious -- the man could make the phrase "Lady Hornets" sound dirty yet look convincingly unaware that he'd done so. Janelle Schremmer's gym teacher had this slight touch of Mary Woronov in Rock 'N' Roll High School about her at times, which also added to the fun. For once, the students aren't a bunch of smart-ass kids who upstage the teachers; very few of them are in multiple scenes and show distinctive personalities, and they don't have clever replies for every little thing. They're simply teenage kids. The spotlight is definitely on the faculty in this film.
The pacing of the film rarely drags -- the actors and director all have a good sense of comic timing. Most of the film is set within the school grounds, except for a teacher's happy hour and a scene in which Mr. Lowrey decides to visit a student's mom. However, the film never feels claustrophobic, since there's enough going on in different school environments to maintain interest. I did feel that the shooting style based on The Office is growing a little stale, although I did like the periodic reminders about how many weeks in the school year remained.
I enjoyed watching Chalk at the festival, but I had to wonder how much the audience factored in to that enjoyment. Not being a teacher myself, I probably wouldn't have laughed at so many of the jokes if I'd been watching the movie alone, curled up on the couch. Chalk was a great illustration of how a movie can truly blossom with the right crowd. (As much as I like Office Space, it was funniest when I saw it in a theater near one of Austin's high-tech office zones.) In other words, if you have the chance to see Chalk and want to make sure you'll enjoy it at its fullest, bring a teacher or two along with you.