Eighth Grade 2018 ****

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Bo Burnham’s background on social media was one of the main selling points of his coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade, but the writer/director’s first film is a careful, tender and decidedly now film about a girl growing up in the digital age. Burnham smartly doesn’t over-emphasise this; Kayla has a blog, largely unseen, and expresses herself through her tech, but it doesn’t really change anything about her life rather than indexing her many anxieties. Kayla (Elise Fisher) has difficulties with boys are to be expected, but the sweet nature of her relationship with her father (John Hamilton) is far more affecting than might be guessed. All the conversations featured here feel real, like the mall-chat where Kayla’s age is discussed in terms of how mature she was when Snapchat became a thing. A throw-away scene in which the school-children sleepwalk through a drill for a school-shooter reveals Eighth Grade’s charm; the times may have changed, but the essence of childhood, having fun while yearning to be mature, remains much the same.

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Doubt 2009 ***

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Plays like The Big Funk made John Patrick Shanley’s name; his cinematic output, from Moonstruck to Joe Vs The Volcano, is highly idiosyncratic. Adapting his own play Doubt for the big screen, he also turned director and coaxed excellent performances from Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for this absorbing drama. Set in 1964, Streep plays Sister Aloyisus the matriarchal school principlal who is alerted by Sister James (Adams) to the behaviour of a charismatic priest Father Flynn, played by Hoffman. Their concern is the attention that Flynn is playing to the school’s first black student; Shanley’s concern is not so much to investigate Flynn’s actions, but to consider the whole nature of guilt and doubt. The actors are more than capable of handling the long dialogue scenes, and Viola Davis contributes an explosive cameo as the boy’s mother.

The Class of 1984 1982 ***

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There’s not much classy about The Class of 1984; Mark L Lester’s exploitation movie is as reactionary as they come. Andrew Norris (Perry King) is an young idealistic teacher whose ideas are compromised when he starts work at a hell-hole of an inner-city high school. Old hand Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) has a more practical approach; he teaches his class at gun-point. But the shadow of gang-leader Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) pushes Norris too far, and he starts fighting back on behalf of his downtrodden students. A striking early scene of Stegman playing an outlandish piano piece sets the off-kilter tone; Lester’s film may have turned out like a Death Wish clone, but it’s aiming for a Clockwork Orange level of societal commentary. Even when table saws are pressed into service, The Class of 1984 still keeps a firm grip on its ‘the world is going to hell in a hand-basket’ motif.

Unman, Wittering and Zigo 1971 ***

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The unusual title comes from the last three names on a register called by idealistic teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) in John Mackenzie’s adaptation of a play by Giles Cooper. Ebony takes up his post only to find the mood of the class is ugly; they hint at their collective responsibility for the death of Ebony’s predecessor, and it’s clear that Lower 5B have ominous plans for Ebony and his wife (Carolyn Seymour). Mackenzie’s film has a subversive feel for the mind-games of the pupils, and builds to some impressively tense scenes as Ebony’s dream job becomes a nightmare. There’s also a roll-call of British TV stars in support, from Barbara Lott (Ronnie Corbett’s mother in sitcom Sorry) to Tony Haygarth and Douglas Wilmer.

Children of a Lesser God 1986 ****

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Mark Medoff’s hot Broadway property comes to the screen in a sensitive adaptation by director Randa Haines. William Hurt plays James Leeds, a speech teacher specializing in deaf students, who takes a post at a remote new Brunswick school. He makes good progress with his students, but finds himself involved with his cleaner Sarah (Marlee Matlin), a gifted student who refuses to leave the school. James and Sarah have a turbulent sexual relationship, and one which brings his unconventional methods to the attention of the headmaster (Phillip Bosco).  Matlin won an Oscar for her remarkable performance, but Hurt matches her intensity; it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood film that doesn’t rely on actors feigning disability, but instead casts a genuinely deaf woman in a central role. A thoughtful view of teaching, relationships and deafness, Children of a Lesser God still offers plenty of romance without being sloppy.

The History Boys 2006 ****

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Alan Bennett adapted his own stage hit for director Nicholas Hytner, and the result is an unconventional view of the educational process that brims with wit and acute observation of teachers and pupils alike. Hector (Richard Griffith) is the avuncular history teacher gifted with a splendid group of prospects, including James Cordern, Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Anderson. Hector’s unconventional methods reward his charges with the freedom to think about their subject, and to take their education seriously, but his own sexual proclivities threaten to discredit his own innovative stylings. With little sentimentality, and a practical view of the realities of pupil-teacher relationships, The History Boys is one of the few films about education that actually teach the audience something; an uplifting story about fulfilment that never forgets the complexities of teenage development.

The Rules of Attraction 2002 ****

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Pulp Fiction’s co-writer Roger Avary was an ideal choice to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s follow up to Less Than Zero, and he throws the kitchen sink at it, using split-screens, video-diaries and all kinds of tricks to get to the dark and dangerous heart of the novel. James Van Der Beek is Sean Bateman, brother of American Psycho’s Patrick, who sells drugs, abuses women, and generally makes a monster of himself on a university campus. Eric Stolz plays a stoner lecturer with elan, and Faye Dunaway has a memorable turn as a concerned mother. With the opening credits appearing some twenty minutes into the film, The Rules of Attraction is a decidedly unconventional film, and one that takes liberties with Ellis’ novel, yet somehow ends up making the right kind of satirical jabs.