Making the Grades
Releasing in theaters just as the kids head back to school is a film sure to do anything but improve student/teacher relationships. Actor Billy Bob Thornton borrows traits from some of the characters he has portrayed in previous films (like the callous coach in The Bad News Bears and the macho mentor in School for Scoundrels) to create Mr. Woodcock, a cruel, obnoxious authoritarian who happens to be a physical education teacher as well.
John Farley (Kyley Baldridge) is one of the pupils unlucky enough to be assigned to his class. A little on the pudgy side, the young boy, along with a dozen or so other kids, is doing his best to tolerate Mr. Woodcock's abrasive educational style that includes bulldozing kids with basketballs, name-calling and ordering ten laps around the gym for the slightest offense. But the day John forgets to wear his gym shorts brings an even worse reaction. Insisting he change into some spare "rental" clothes, the maniacal coach refuses to let him return to his locker to make the switch. Then, after he has been forced to strip down to his underwear in front of his peers, the insensitive instructor orders him to do chin-ups -- a task designed to demonstrate his poor physical shape.
Although fifteen years have passed since that humiliating experience, the now adult John (Seann William Scott) has never forgotten. Fortunately, he has been able to move on with his life, and has become a successful author of an immensely popular self-help book titled Letting Go. Amongst the stream of praise he is enjoying for his work is an offer to return to his Nebraska hometown to accept the community's highest honor. However, his sense of accomplishment is severely dimmed when he learns the committee also plans on presenting Mr. Woodcock with a teaching award. Nor does the situation look any brighter after John discovers his mother (Susan Sarandon) is now dating the self-appointed dictator. Suddenly the writer's trip down memory lane has turned into a chance to see if he is truly capable of letting go.
If you have any thoughts that this film may teach messages of self-worth and forgiveness, think again. Such potentially positive messages are never explored in the story. Instead this collection of lowbrow characters wallow through scatological crudities and profanities, delights in mean-spirited senselessness and snickers over sexuality. Perhaps the only educational facet presented is the obvious thesaurus scouring that was done to uncover every known synonym for sex (likely motivated by a desire to avoid the usual sexual expletive and thus circumventing receiving a more restrictive movie rating).
While the script attempts to justify Mr. Woodcock's school of hard knocks as a way to produce worthy contenders in today's aggressive society, the misfits prove they haven't matured one whit since they were all targets of his abuse. As entertainment, the movie deserves a failing grade for trying to extract comedy from portrayals of bullying. For families concerned about building respect in youth and strengthening adult role models, such depictions are no laughing matter.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Mr. Woodcock.
There is a fine line between using humor to overcome past childhood difficulties versus trying to find comedy in something that is not a laughing matter. How might different people react to a movie like this? How does our own experience and personality shape the way we react to media?