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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Coach Carter and The Chorus (Les Choristes) (review)

Hoop Dreams and High C’s

With two of the damn things opening on the same day, I think it’s safe to make it official: there is now no denying that there is a subgenre of triumph-of-the-human-spirit melodrama that must be dubbed the Dead Poets Society Movie. Stand and deliver your Mona Lisa smile for a story about dangerous minds who lean on me and learn the music of the heart. Or something. Cuz as Mr. Holland learned, you’re never too old to, er, learn.

And what I learned from these two new Dead Poets Society movies is that, much to the surprise of the bitter, cynical heart you all discovered in Act I that beats hollowly inside my chest, once in a while they’re actually kinda not bad. Or even really kinda good. Or even really so sneakily touching that you find yourself snuffling back tears and snot in spite of yourself and have to wait for the theater to empty so that no one sees you’ve been crying.

Not that I’m saying that happened to me, you see. Of course it didn’t. My bitter, cynical heart won’t thaw until Act III.
Anyway: It’s American! It’s French! It’s all sad, dysfunctional, angry boys discovering self-respect and saving themselves from themselves! Via basketball! Or singing! And restoring the hope and the heart of their coach! Or their choir leader! You can run from one to the other and have a Dead Poets Society Movie weekend! Er, unless you’re not in New York or L.A., in which case you only get the basketball one.

What I also learned: Sometimes you can’t put your finger on why a movie that is so head-smackingly predictable can also be so thoroughly enjoyable. I mean, was there really ever any question as to whether Coach Ken Carter — in the American basketball film, not the French singing film — would get his gang of inner-city high-schoolers to not only win a spot in the Super Bowl but also discover the cure for cancer and finally figure out why it is that when you drop a piece of buttered toast on the floor, it always lands butter-side down? No. There was no question at all.

The only unpredictable thing, really, about Coach Carter is how engaging it turns out to be. But why? Yes, sure, Samuel Jackson (The Incredibles, Kill Bill: Volume 2) is a god who walks upon the earth, but even he cannot make that awful speech at the end of the film — the one about how his players have gone from being boys to being men and how it’s never a good idea to neglect your teeth — sound anything other than, well, awful. At least he only has to do one of those speeches, and the rest of the time he gets to just totally kick asses and inspire devotion and be so amazingly upstanding that you want to run out and play basketball for him, too. Like his son, played by the adorable Robert Ri’chard, who drops out of a ritzy private academy to go to the depressing public school in a nuclear-bombed neighborhood where his dad is coaching. It seems like that kind of thing should make you want to roll your eyes at the movie, but you don’t.

And also: the kids in the cast are great, and the basketball is shot so excitingly by director Thomas Carter that even I got caught up in it, and I can’t abide watching sports on TV and mostly can’t abide seeing sports played in person, either. But mostly, I think the thing that got to me is that this is one of those message movies where I feel really really passionately about the message and think more people need to get it through their thick skulls.

See, this is kinda the anti Friday Night Lights, which glorified the idea that high-school sports is as good as it gets for some kids and there’s nothing to be done about that, might as well accept it. And Coach Carter just brings that Sam Jackson brand of righteous indignation to bear on that, like how the fuck insane is it that a neighborhood would riot over a cancelled high-school basketball game — which is what happens when the coach decides his team aren’t performing well enough in the classroom to warrant the privilege of playing basketball — and not riot over the fact that they all live in a culture of negativity, poverty, violence, and institutionalized despair that labels as “uppity” anyone who aspires for more, that enabling teachers let their athlete students slide academically, that the whole damn system is designed to ensure that most of these kids fail.

If it takes Sam Jackson knocking some sense into people, then that’s what it takes. Maybe we should start sending him around to schools in person to make sure the message is understood.

Gérard Jugnot is no Sam Jackson, and Jugnot’s Clément Mathieu is no Coach Carter-type tough-guy philosopher, either — he’s a mild-mannered failed musician, and someone, we suspect, who would get totally rolled by the preadolescent juvenile delinquents in his charge if he weren’t the inspirational-teacher character in a Dead Poets Society movie. But never mind. When he arrives at the post-WWII rural French boarding school for wayward boys — a school whose name translates, sheesh, as “Rock Bottom” — and tries to get them interested in music as a way to, yup, build their self-esteem, there’s no question that he will succeed in getting the little monsters to sing like angels, even if they do call him Baldy.

It’s much easier to justify to yourself sobbing your eyes out by the end of The Chorus (Les Choristes), because it’s in French and it’s historical and not just a sports movie and who cries at sports movies? and there won’t be any wannabe-gangsta teenage-boy fans of Sam Jackson around to ridicule you for sobbing like a little girl. Not that I did that, of course, but you might feel the need to because, oh lordy, do those boys sound like angels or what? Rock Bottom is a horrible place, run by a horrible man, Rachin (François Berléand), who mistreats the boys something awful (he’s responsible for the small-scale institutionalization of despair in the culture of the school), and it’s just too sad and discouraging. And then along comes this apparently meek little teacher who makes everyone feel better (except Rachin) and have some hope for themselves and their future and treats the boys well and pushes them to challenge themselves.

You sob and sob because you either remember a teacher like this you had as a kid, or you wish you had a teacher like this as a kid. But I suspect the reason these Dead Poets Society movies never go away is that hardly anyone had teachers like this when they were kids, and the fantasy of it is something we never tire of, because who knows: We all might have been astronauts or prime ministers with the right encouragement when we were younger.

Coach Carter
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material
official site | IMDB

The Chorus (Les Choristes)
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for some language
official site | IMDB

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