The Ron Clark Story

| August 1, 2006

Maybe Newton’s missing fourth law of motion states that whenever an offbeat teacher’s antics turn on a classroom of doe-eyed troublemakers to the magic of learning, a principal hailing from the Judge Judy School of No-Nonsense must shake his/her head in the background at said inspirational teacher, only speaking up to reprimand the naïve Everysaint for “getting these kids’ hopes up.” How else to explain the shopworn storytelling cog found everywhere from “Dead Poet’s Society” to “Coach Carter” to “The Ron Clark Story,” a Matthew Perry telepic premiering August 13 on TNT? Is there no principal in the world who’s ever cheered on such efforts? Or even more pressing, don’t these principals ever feel bad for berating such hopeful do-gooding?
Likewise, it’s difficult to make a case against “The Ron Clark Story,” a familiar chestnut of a story (based on a true one – who woulda thunk?) so well-meaning and straightforward and even at times spirited, only an unsmiling authority figure could find fault.
Matthew Perry plays the titular character, who after four years of teaching at a clean, suburban elementary school, up and leaves to try his hand at a school in East Harlem, where lots of graffiti and lots of hip-hop (but strangely no cuss words) are the order of the day. What’s he thinking here? The movie alludes to his fear of permanence and maybe a need for adventure, but we’re left mostly to fill in the blanks. Indeed, the biggest kudos here goes to Perry himself, for pulling off the something-from-nothing feat of turning a character the script cruelly cheats out of any complexity into an honest-to-TNT-goodness (un)sung hero.
Perry’s Ron Clark is not someone who brings Whoopi Goldberg’s sass from “Sister Act 2″, Jack Black’s crass from “School of Rock,” or Antonio Banderas’s class from “Take the Lead” to our problem classroom. As he checks off the list of ICAs (Inspirational Classroom Antics) – performing a rap about U.S. presidents, downing chocolate milk every fifteen seconds during a grammar lecture, double-dutching with the kids, so on – Perry often looks unsure, but willing. He’s playing a version of Chandler Bing (cynicism on mute, manboy charm times two), and quite a welcome, down-to-earth one.
In fact, there’s nothing savior-mystical at all about this Stranger Come to Town, and halfway through the movie, a subtly neat realization occurs: the guy’s a square! He’s not someone secretly subversive enough to pump something so idealistic and corny like Ron Clark’s Rules (“Rule #1: We Are Family”) into a disaffected urban classroom. This white-bread golden boy really means it, and – here’s the kicker – has no reason to believe the kids would do anything but play along. Perhaps a wiser screenwriter might have played more with such genuine naiveté.
The filmmakers actually devote more time to fleshing out the kid characters, but even then, our curiosities about them are answered in simple A-to-B explanations. Why does Shameika (Hannah Hodson), the classroom’s prime uncooperative spokesbitch, have to play so difficult with the newbie Mr. Clark? Well, later we find out she’s a hardened twelve-year-old mother of three. What’s up with Tayshawn’s (Brandon Smith) anger problem? We’ll chalk it up to an abusive foster father. Like Perry, though, the game child actors do all they can to pour human spirit into characters that, on paper, would have less resonance than a cardboard box.
While Perry and his kiddie co-stars work tirelessly to make their characters feel based on true people, the story itself succeeds with surprising deft. The triumphs are small enough to feel realistic, and thus rewarding. Even the standard-issue Big Competition at the movie’s climax is not a statewide sing-and-dance affair, but merely a regional end-of-the-year exam. And the romance subplot involving Clark and an aspiring actress does what it can to shed more light on what little character we’re allowed to witness.
“The Ron Clark Story” does not strive to be groundbreaking, or even clever. It knows its material well, it knows we know its material well, and it responds by delivering such a modern American story template with genuine emotion and straightforward panache that its lack of character nuance becomes a minor quibble. This is a story that works precisely because it enters the room with no reason for anyone to take it seriously and thus wins big. It pulls a Ron Clark itself: who on earth could have figured that something so well-intentioned but unoriginal could actually, truly inspire?

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