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Beyond the regular syllabus, teachers in films can be fascinating, flawed characters

Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 10:31 AM

Think of the greatest teachers in cinema history and immediately, some obvious, classic educator-roles spring to mind. Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, With Love." Peter O'Toole in "Goodbye Mr. Chips." Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Perhaps, for those who haven't developed a condition known as Carpe Diem Aversion, even Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society."

But that only takes us halfway through the syllabus. There are many more complex, inspiring, flawed and fascinating school teachers whose plays key roles in film. And with school officially back in session, this seemed like the perfect week to mention a few recent movie instructors whose lessons can be absorbed on DVD or Blu-ray.

Sister James (Amy Adams) in "Doubt"

Philip Seymour Hoffman's possibly indiscrete priest and Meryl Streep's dauntingly judgmental principal may serve as the two magnetic poles in this impeccably acted 2008 drama. But it's Adams's James -- a Catholic school teacher with genuine concern for her students, an ability to find the good in everyone and a stunning abundance of naivete -- who emerges from this adaptation of the the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as the one character who, maybe, you'd want teaching your own children.

Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

The main character in this Academy Award-winning film is, obviously, Precious, the stoic, abused, overweight young woman played by Gabourey Sidibe. But there would be no "Precious" without the patient, tough-loving Ms. Rain, the teacher at the alternative school Each One, Teach One who shows this movie's troubled soul the way toward the light.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) in "Half Nelson"

When we see him in a classroom trying to impart the importance of history to a group of junior high schoolers, Dunne looks like nothing less than a heroic, amazing teacher. And that's what makes his drug addiction -- an affliction destroying his life off school grounds -- that much more heart-breaking. In an Academy Award-nominated performance, Gosling realistically shows us that even the most inspiring teachers are still fallible humans who, sometimes, learn the most valuable lessons from students, in this case a troubled girl played with quiet power by Shareeka Epps.

Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in "School of Rock"

Okay, technically Finn isn't so much a teacher as a slacker who has been thrown out of a band and decides to impersonate his roommate in order to snag a substitute gig at an esteemed private school. But by the time this infectious 2003 comedy from director Richard Linklater is over, Black's Finn realizes his calling isn't musical stardom -- it's showing kids how to do their own rockin.'

Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) in "Notes on a Scandal"

Covett is the kind of teacher no education major would ever aspire to be: bitter, lonely and capable of manipulating a colleague and friend (Cate Blanchett) in ways that are beyond reprehensible. As portrayed by a beady-eyed, venomous Dench -- an Oscar nominee for her work here -- this woman is pretty much the opposite of the admirable Jean Brodies and Professor Keatings found in other school dramas. But then, that's exactly what makes her -- and her Machiavellian actions -- so icily memorable.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in "A Serious Man"

A physics professor dealing with the disintegration of virtually every aspect of his life, Gopnik is simultaneously grasping to reach tenure, keep his marriage together and avoid accepting a bribe from a less-than-stellar student. As a man tasked with providing all the answers during lecture halls, this Coen Brothers character becomes increasingly addled as he quickly realizes that when it comes to life, all he's got are more questions.

jen.chaney@wpost.com

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