B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
DANGEROUS MINDS BEGINS with what, for most teachers, must be a nightmare: arriving at the first day of school to find a classroom full of hostile, slang-talking kids with minds as closed as a bank vault on Sunday. The inexperienced LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries the usual methods to get their attention, and they laugh derisively. Then the toughest guy in the class taunts her with a remark about cunnilingus, and she writes his name on the board. More laughter. Johnson walks out defeated, realizing she has been thrown to the wolves.
Based on a nonfiction book by an English teacher at a Northern California high school, Dangerous Minds is about how a creative, caring approach to teaching turns these wolves into pussycats. You can expect oversimplification from a story like this, and the adaptation at times seems laughably naive, but the sympathetic reality of the situation wins out. This is a world where teachers, working in underfunded conditions for skimpy wages, are social martyrs; and the students, coming from lower-class backgrounds that discourage scholarships, are often heroic just for making an effort. With lacquered realism, the film takes these grim facts and builds a sweet little drama around them.
Because the screenplay compresses its day-to-day classroom activities into a few pivotal sessions, Johnson's transformation into a beloved mind-stimulator does have some embarrassing edges. On her first day of effective teaching, she dons a leather jacket and shows the kids some karate moves. Pfeiffer looks only a little silly (the line "Once a marine, always a marine," seen repeatedly in previews, has mercifully been cut from the movie). But the reaction of the principal (played with exaggerated anal-retentiveness by Courtney B. Vance) is right out of some sort of whimsical Orwellian tale.
Johnson's shrewd educational tactics continue as she tosses candy bars to those who give correct answers and later treats the class to a field trip at an amusement park just to prove she is on their side. Necessary conflict-creating moments, in which students rebel against the sense they are being bribed, are badly outnumbered by times when the kids seem like seals performing for snacks, and at one point I could have sworn I saw Pfeiffer give out a rubber snake to someone for conjugating a verb. But the process by which Johnson introduces the class to poetry, starting with Bob Dylan lyrics and advancing to Dylan Thomas, is both believable and well-suited to the big screen. At the very least, it's more substantial than watching visions of pasty-faced boys standing on their desks à la Dead Poets Society.
Adults will laugh at the latter scenes of Dangerous Minds, which show Johnson loaning her students money, making surprise visits at their homes and at one point allowing a marked gangbanger to hide out at her place. Even a teacher as devoted as Johnson still has to endure regular ill-treatment and maintain a steadfast wariness of danger in order to keep doing her job, and the movie too often pretends otherwise. But it's important to note that Dangerous Minds is specifically designed for an audience similar to the kids depicted in the classroom--marginalized youths who aren't going to let any pesky need for realism get in the way of enjoying what for many must be a rare concept: teacher-as-friend.
To maintain this ideal, Pfeiffer's persona is crafted out of equal parts documentary and fantasy. With her melting eyes and her ability to keep a strong sense of acceptance aglow behind her tough demeanor, could there be more ideal casting for this educational love object? (The picture might be retitled To Ma'am With Love.) Following Pfeiffer's lead, the young actors, a terrific combination of pros and non-pros expertly directed by John N. Smith, create a moving representation of the great need less-adept students have for mentors who actually seem to give a damn about them. "What about us?" they say achingly when Pfeiffer announces her decision to retire. It's a measure of Dangerous Minds' success that you feel that ache too.
Dangerous Minds is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth