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‘Dangerous Minds’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1995


John N. Smith
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Courtney Vance;
George Dzundza

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Michelle Pfeiffer enters the blackboard jungle and tames a menagerie of misfits in "Dangerous Minds," an earnest adaptation of Marine-turned- schoolteacher LouAnne Johnson's autobiographical book, "My Posse Don't Do Homework." This formulaic schoolroom drama pits Johnson (Pfeiffer) against a classroom of insolent urban teens who blossom under the former lady leatherneck's tough love and unconventional tutelage.

Johnson almost quits on her first day but quickly realizes that her students aren't bad kids, they're just misunderstood and unmotivated. The next day she returns brimming with a missionary zeal and bearing Butterfingers—bribes for correct answers.

Soon it dawns upon her that the key to their hearts and to their minds is poetry. She starts them out with something they can relate to—"Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan, though presumably the kids would have responded as readily to the more familiar street poetry of rap. She then neatly segues into the works of Dylan Thomas.

Though the school's prissy principal (Courtney Vance) insists she return to the prescribed lesson plan, Johnson persists. And before you can say "jingle-jangle morning," the kids have become the inner-city branch of the Dead Poets Society. They gain still more self-esteem when they learn they have been studying from college-level textbooks.

On rare occasions the film touches on the world outside the classroom, but not often enough to provide a sense of place or social context. The students are bused to a middle-class neighborhood in Northern California, although you'd never know, given the minimal visual information provided by John N. Smith, who previously directed the Canadian TV drama "The Boys of St. Vincent."

The film fleetingly touches on the underfunding of schools and other administrative problems as well as the more compelling personal issues of teen pregnancy and violence. But the characters are so poorly drawn and underdeveloped that they seem to be little more than personifications of these societal ills.

The screenplay by Ronald Bass, the Oscar-winning author of "Rain Man," called for a series of scenes involving Johnson and her boyfriend, all of which were shot and then cut from the movie. She does have a sounding board in George Dzundza, stalwart as her old friend and colleague. But Pfieffer is absurdly miscast: Sly Stallone would make a more plausible Mr. Chips than the frail, squeaky actress does a nine-year veteran of the Marine Corps.

"Dangerous Minds" is rated R for language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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