The movie "Teachers" pledges to fight for the cause of education, pointing out what's wrong in a damaged system that awards students who don't even show up in class, mocks the school system and also guarantee some laughs with it. The message is good, it's not anything out of this world, but the intersection of genres and some choices get in the way of making this a greater film.
Despite this being a 1980's flick, "Teachers" is not dated and feels more relevant now than ever. Schools like the one depicted here are quite common, with variations on the same tune: precarious places with uninterested teachers and even worse students, and directors trying to please themselves and the government with false statistics to get more funding, that always gets lost somewhere. It'll open some eyes about the obstacles inside the educational system and the politics behind one of the greatest tragedies of all: present students and future workers have their potential wasted under those circumstances, a present with no knowledge and a future without opportunities. You know the rest of the picture in real life, and it can only turn darker.
A high school is facing a lawsuit from one of their former graduated student who passed all exams but who doesn't even know how to read. This premise, so far, looks dumb cause this kid benefited, in a way, of the institution policies and then got mad he got shunned off by possible employers, then sue them? No judge in their right mind would accept that. Anyway...The prosecutor (JoBeth Williams) goes to the school to find out what really happened and if the teachers knew about this wrongful approval. One of the masters is a former teacher of hers (Nick Nolte), an idealistic man she saw as an example to be followed but at the current moment is deeply involved in the place's mode of conducting business: they need to get more budget and they can only guarantee that with results - which they don't have because they are a low quality school (but the government doesn't know that!). It's a game of pretending but he teaches, he cares about his students, and that's why the woman is convinced he can help her to make her case against the school, after knowing that no one's gonna help her there.
In between the battle of ideologies Nick's character has with the prosecutor (the institution's reality vs. the dreamy cause of education) and the obstacles he faces with the board of directors, he tries to save some conflicted students - a rebel boy (Ralph Macchio) neglected by his divorced parents, who is forced to take reading classes in order to pass since he was already pushed grades after grades by thousands of other teachers - and a girl (Laura Dern) who was knocked-up by a PE teacher, and I guess you can see that this will be the turning point of the story. Luckily, the movie escapes from the worn out clichéd of dangerous school filled with robbers, punks and thugs who threat colleagues and masters.
What attracted me the most was the level of reality brought into the story. Absurdity is a norm in that kind of movie, and "Teachers" has plenty of that, but it stays close to the truth in some aspects, with the teachers routine in class and in the meetings with their peers during breaks. Directors putting pressure on teachers to get results favorable to them? Sure, and they do that with students too. I personally seen during my high school years a director assembling the last seniors, explaining to all of us how important the state's exam was, rudely demanding to do our best. You know what everybody did? Boycotted the exam. By that, I mean, the majority flunked those tests on purpose. Why going right if no one's gonna stay there one more year? It's all about providing big budgets to the school.
The movie's a delight, humored, serious when needed but it's overloaded with baggage. It deals with problematic schools (avoiding some clichés though), some romance, the lawsuit, troubled kids (but never dangerous as portrayed in many existing realities and films out there), disenchanted masters vs. idealist types, and more. It's like Mr. Hiller wanted all and wouldn't want to settle for less, but in the end he accomplishes half way with everything he wanted because it's just too much to cover. By the time a murder takes place, it all falls out of place and the upcoming moment is an hilarious scene where the true nature of Richard Mulligan's character is revealed, cutting off any possible moment of sadness for the dead student. I think the writer and the director should settle with something: or invest in a real drama like "Lean on Me"; or be somewhat satirical; or an anarchic comedy like any other of its kind.
The final message provided here isn't all that easy to accomplish, and I'm not sure if it is even possible. Teachers challenging the system is a good cause but it can only work if students, parents and the community get involved, and the administration (governments included) be willing to fight for the best cause for all. Education is the fundamental right that paves the way to all the other rights. 8/10