I’m a child of the eighties. Despite everything about that decade that makes us collectively cringe in hindsight, there were a lot of really good movies around. With the home video explosion as the starting gun, it was probably the most inventive, free-spirited and invigorating decades in film history, when people still had fresh stories to tell, before the endless cycle of adaptations, sequels and ‘reimaginings’ threatened to stifle all those sweetly amateurish voices, if not silence them completely. But that’s a rant for another day. Let’s just watch one of those eighties films instead, shall we?
Jethro Gibbs on roller skates.
Seconds before he is due to leave for Hawaii, gym teacher Freddy Shoop is drafted to cover a remedial English class in summer school after the last teacher won the lottery and skipped town. Threatened with the sack if his students don’t pass the standard test at the end of the class, Freddy must figure out how to teach this bunch of misfits and reprobates and inspire them to succeed where all others have failed. And if he can also score with his cute colleague, so much the better.
This is not exactly what I thought it was going to be. Directed by Carl Reiner, I was expecting something a little more shambolic and subversive, but this is actually one of the most straightforward, gentle and charming of that sub-genre that saw its biggest successes between the mid-eighties to late nineties: the inspirational teacher movie. Mark Harmon plays Shoop, the slacker gym teacher who just wanted to go to Hawaii with his girlfriend Kim (played by Amy Stock-Poynton, better known as Missy, Bill S Preston Esq.’s babe of a stepmother). He doesn’t want to be a classroom teacher; in fact, he doesn’t even know how to go about it. The students he gets saddled with aren’t idiots or criminals or junkies though, just kids who didn’t really bother during regular term. Some of them even have good reasons, but all any of them needs is a bit of encouragement and a minor bribe or two.
Watching movies like this, 25 years later, it’s always fun* looking at all the kids and seeing who has gone on to have a recognisable acting career. Summer School has a pretty fair ratio. There’s Patrick Labyorteaux (ten years of JAG, including a brief reunion with Harmon), Shawnee Smith (Becker, the Saw franchise), Courtney Thorne-Smith (Melrose Place, Ally McBeal) and last but not least, Fabiana Udenio (Austin Powers‘ Alotta Fagina). Jeff Franklin’s script is consistently funny, but more as a steady mild chuckle than a total sidesplitter. He manages to sneak in some dramatic undertones as well, such as teen pregnancy, dyslexia and one student who spends all day sleeping in class, only for Shoop to find out that he’s tired because he spends all night working as a male stripper. It is a shame that these plot strands are all so neatly tied up at the end without any real conflict though.
Summer School actually goes against the accepted tropes for this type of film in a lot of ways. Just about everyone defies your expectations at least once, whether it’s the football jock asking out a classmate who is nine months pregnant, then becoming her Lamaze coach; the supposedly inspirational teacher who doesn’t want to be taking the class, and only starts trying when his job is threatened; the beautiful Italian exchange student who is set upon by the two boozehound horror-movie nuts and immediately bonds with both of them over The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; aside from the boo-hiss Vice Principal Bad Guy, everyone in the film is a rounded, well-delineated character, not just a stereotype. You know, maybe the flick is a little bit subversive after all.
Despite its “ticking clock” trappings (the whole class must pass or your’re fired!) Summer School is more of a slice-of-life character piece than a traditional high school movie. The film shows us these people and asks us if we want to hang out and get to know them for 100 minutes. As a piece of eighties nostalgia, it’s pretty good fun, mostly thanks to Mark Harmon and his easy charm in the lead role. How that man didn’t have a much bigger movie career, I will never know. Although if he had gotten big on the big screen we wouldn’t have NCIS, so there’s some consolation.
*Our respective definitions of “fun” may vary.