MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS (1996) *** 1/2
The biopic, smoothly combined with a school picture with a difference, becomes a triple whammy paean to music, education and the teaching profession. While there have been hundreds of movies involving schools, very few reach the seriousness and depth of this film. Fewer yet depict so well a teacher's dedication.
Arguably, the first classic school picture was Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct," in which all the teachers but one (a younger newcomer who clowns like Charlie Chaplin) were miserable creatures loathed by the students. Schools were present in the pleasantly corny Andy Hardy series. Later, American high schools (Ridgemont, Cooley, Rock 'n' Roll, Central, et al.) were venues for student sheenanigans. So were the comic British "St. Trinian's" series. Hardly any students ever seem to study in those movies.
In a handful of fine, non-comedic foreign works l("Pocket Money," "Au Revoir les Enfants," "Heavenly Creatures") the actual educational process in them was secondary to other, serious themes.
A few schools were the settings for personal dramas ("The Browning Version"), dark deeds ("Diabolique," "Unman, Wittering and Zigo," "Pretty Maids All in a Row") or armed revolts (the British "If" that derived from "Zero for Conduct"). Two notable films centered on girls' crushes on their female teachers, the German classic "Maedchen in Uniform" and the little-known French "Olivia."
"Lean on Me" was about a disciplinarian principal. "Madame Sousatzka," where the teacher gives private lessons, stresses eccentricity, as does "Dead Poets Society. " There is, of course, Frederick Wiseman's epoch-making "High School," but that's a documentary. And so on...
Among the movies that focus strongly on truly dedicated schoolteachers, the more familiar titles include a classic "Goodbye Mr. Chips," as well as "The Blackboard Jungle," "To Sir, with Love," "Conrack," "Ciao Professore!," and the wonderfully quirky "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." I would also recommend the odd but successful casting of Bette Davis in an older movie, "The Corn Is Green."
"Mr. Holland" joins this small, select group, in a different context and with a new approach. Glenn Holland at first feels and fumbles his way to teach musically inept and cacophonous kids and to put up with a fine but demanding principal (Dukakis, with a delicious wink in her eyes) and her semi-martinet, crew-cut assistant principal. Gradually, Holland learns how to teach, and does so superbly. Slowly, he gets caught up in the passion for teaching. He also reaches a persuasive level of eloquence without ever becoming a goodie-goodie speech-maker.
A natural, what with his original methods, warmth, love of music and the arts, Mr. Holland forms students who are almost too accomplished to be true. He must face the killing schedule of so many teachers, a the low pay that must be supplemented by odds and ends , like driving lessons. Obliged to form a marching band, he manages it only through the friendship of the gym teacher --for a change, not an uncouth or comical type -- and a quid pro quo: Holland will teach an instrument to a black wrestler who needs the credit. In one scene, Mr. H. improvises tricks that inculcate rhythm to the kid. This could be a subtle attack on the old cliche " blacks are born with rhythm." There are several more excellent scenes in the film, but let the viewer discover them.
When a son is born to the Hollands he turns out to be deaf. The shock to Mr. Holland is not followed by the expected sentimentality but by complex, believable reactions which over the years include difficulties, frustrations and misunderstandings as well as love.
As Mr. H gets older, there is also a nicely handled bit of temptation. Typically, script and direction do not make a mountain of this or of a mid-life crisis. In general the movie skirts schmaltz, feel-good saccharine or feverish drama. It is also mercifully free of the usual school bullies, toughs or clowning figures.
Perforce episodic, the movie is intercut with documentary footage to show the passage of the years and to orient us, a procedure that reminds me of Olympia Dukakis addressing Holland about his "compass." (See the film and you'll get the point). Viewers should be ready for several moments when it seems that the movie is about to end.
The music, classical and popular, is beautiful. The aging of the actors (makeup, hair, movements) is most skillful, as is the dosage of routine, solemn, funny and sad elements. Richard Dreyfuss, in an Oscar-worthy, sober performance is entirely convincing. With luck, some of us had someone like Mr. H in our school days.
Many moments are touching and could be eye-wetting, yet all done without pulling out all the stops, as "Mr. Holland's Opus" remains steadfastly sweet but never becomes cloying, never departs from realism. The characters, their lines and behavior feel genuine. Even the deaf people are really deaf.
One small flaw in the movie is the finale's improbably well-organized homage to the music teacher. It happens just after the school is forced to cut 10 percent of its budget. Of course this gets done by eliminating programs in music and other arts.
By coincidence, just before seeing the film I had caught documentarist Ken Burns on C-Span where, rationally, lucidly and passionately he made a case for not cutting federal subsidies to the arts. Mr. Holland is not alone in trying to send us a message.