DVD Review: DVDs for Going Back to School

The Class
"The Class," recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, provides an authentic education in what it means to be a teacher. ((Sony Pictures Classics))
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009; 12:00 AM

It's the time of year when kids load up their backpacks and educators make sure all their red pens are in working order. Since the August heat and humidity don't really set the proper mood for another year of pop quizzes and science fair projects, allow the following 10 DVDs to get you in a new-school-year state of mind. Each one features a movie or TV show that depicts the wonderful world of education in ways that are authentic, thought-provoking, amusing or all of the above.

Many classic films and series have focused on the lessons learned between bell ringings -- "Blackboard Jungle," "Stand and Deliver," "The Breakfast Club," heck, even "Welcome Back, Kotter" -- so I've limited this list to releases from the past decade. Hopefully at least one will be an addition to your cinematic curriculum.

"The Class": One of last year's Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Class" focuses so much of its action within the walls of one French teacher's classroom, viewers can practically smell the chalk dust while watching it. The story of a veteran educator (Francois Begaudeau, who also wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which the movie is based) and his often impudent crew of middle school students, "The Class" doesn't shy away from the discouraging realities of working in an inner city school system. Throughout its 128 minutes, this is a movie that depicts the delicate dance between discipline, encouragement and friendship that every teacher, whether they live in Washington, Paris or elsewhere, must seamlessly perform every day. (DVD: $28.96; Blu-ray: $39.95)

"Election": Student council elections should be taken very, very seriously. Sure, most of us know that ambitious, politically minded teenagers feel that way. But in Alexander Payne's biting, hilarious modern high school classic, it becomes wincingly clear that even the teachers -- or at least the deceptively mild-mannered and colossally misguided Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) -- are prepared to bring the noise to get the "right" president elected. If you haven't seen Reese Witherspoon in the role of prissy, self-righteous Tracy Flick, correct that error ASAP. (DVD: $9.98; Blu-ray: $29.99)

"Mad Hot Ballroom": This sweet, infectious documentary usually gets filed in the "dance movie" category. And, yes, it is principally a film about New York City elementary school students learning how to fox trot and meringue their way toward triumph in a citywide competition. But "Ballroom" also does a marvelous job of capturing the innocence of 11-year-old minds, the joy of learning and the pride that dedicated teachers take in seeing their young charges blossom. If you can keep your emotions in check when one teacher chokes up as she describes watching her kids turn into "ladies and gentlemen," congratulations. You're a better person than I am. (DVD: $12.98)

"Half Nelson": This 2006 drama is best known as the movie that earned Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination. He portrays a drug-addicted history teacher who gets fired up in the classroom but can't pull his life together outside of it. But Shareeka Epps -- who plays the quiet, thoughtful 13-year-old who becomes his unlikely friend -- also delivers a performance that's powerful precisely because it's so understated. "Half Nelson" is a film that depicts the bond between teacher and student with an authenticity that Hollywood uplifters of the "Finding Forrester" variety only hope to achieve. (DVD: $14.94)

"Undeclared": "Freaks and Geeks" may be the canceled Judd Apatow series that has earned the loudest (albeit well-deserved) critical praise. But don't forget about this equally short-lived and well-observed comedy that follows scrawny freshman Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) through his first, daunting days at the fictional University of North Eastern California. This being an Apatow production, many of his hilarious usual suspects -- Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr -- are along for the dorm-room ride. (DVD: $49.98)

"School of Rock": Yes, this one airs pretty often on cable television, which means you've probably seen Jack Black tell a group of young prep schoolers to fight The Man about 100 times. But so what? Richard Linklater's funny, irresistible ode to rock n' roll and its power to inspire young minds brings more pure, joyful noise to the school-movie genre than any flick in recent memory. Added bonus: the DVD includes an engaging commentary from Black and Linklater. (DVD: $12.98)

"American Teen": A sort of documentary version of "The Breakfast Club," this Sundance Film Festival winner about five Indiana high school seniors attempting to define themselves in the dwindling days before graduation isn't about the things they learn in class. But it is about the equally important lessons teens absorb from all those people they pass in the halls, the ones they befriend, date, hurt and shun. (DVD: $19.99)

"The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season": The 13 episodes in this season of the acclaimed HBO drama zoom in on the daily dysfunction and small victories found within the walls of a fictional Baltimore middle school. The picture isn't always pretty. But because of brilliant writing and affecting performances -- most impressively by the young actors who play the core group of 13-year-old boys becoming men way too fast -- "The Wire" delivers perhaps the most nuanced, honest portrayal of the state of America's schools ever captured on television. And yes, it is possible to jump into this season without having seen the others. But do yourself a favor and catch all five seasons; it's worth the investment. (Fourth Season: $59.99; Complete Series Set: $249.99)

"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys": Former Catholic school students who still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder due to years of studying under intimidating nuns may get a kick out of this largely forgotten 2002 indie. After crafting a comic book in which the dreaded Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) is cast as a character called Nunzilla, high schoolers Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin attempt to play a truly dangerous prank (hint: it involves a wild animal) on their decidedly strict teacher. It's an admittedly outlandish plot development, but one that may remind some DVD viewers of their own Catholic school revenge fantasies. (DVD: $19.94)

"Rocket Science": Anyone who ever joined a high school debate team or participated in forensics competitions will recognize the intensity of the driven debaters in this overlooked 2007 coming-of-ager about a compulsive stutterer determined to master public speaking -- -- for the sake of a girl, of course. The off-kilter humor and the calculating nature of female overachiever Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) make "Rocket Science" the perfect companion to "Election" in a teen-ambition double feature. (DVD: $27.98)

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