The first time I saw İlker Çatak’s “The Teachers’ Lounge,” I couldn’t help but think to myself: “The people who made this film really did their homework.” In 2023, there had been a steady stream of movies that have centered on the teaching profession that did not put the educator on a pedestal, but instead put them in real life situations. Films about teachers have often been stories of inspirational figures who, against all odds, manage to change the worldview or heighten the abilities of their pupils. This year, many writers and directors took a closer look and examined the flawed systems, administrations and lead teachers that go into these buildings every day, whether at the elementary level, in high school or in academia.
I know the elementary school world well. I received a Masters Degree in Elementary Education two years ago and have been employed at a school district for over fifteen years. I have also spent time in Chicago Public Schools as a student teacher and arts educator, so when I watch a movie like “The Teachers’ Lounge” (which takes place in a middle-class district in Germany), I’m often looking at it as a film critic and as someone who will know if the filmmakers really know the world they want to depict.
There is a moment in the film where the main character, a fifth-grade teacher named Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, who should be a bigger part of the Best Actress conversation this year), decides to try and catch the school thief by leaving her laptop camera on and her wallet in a vulnerable place before she leaves for a few minutes. When she comes back, she has some video evidence of wrongdoing. In an ideal world, that would be the end of the investigation, but any educator who watches this film will say to themselves, “there’s no way she’ll get away with filming that in the first place.” Sure enough, it is one of several mis-steps Carla makes throughout the next few days that causes her professional life to spiral downward as she tries to swim upstream against the school board, the parents, the school newspaper reporters, her colleagues and her principal, all of whom have their own integrity and/or careers to protect.
Many have rightfully said “The Teachers’ Lounge” plays like a thriller. Some educators might watch it and think it plays like just another Tuesday. What makes the events in “The Teachers’ Lounge” (for me, the best film of 2023) so incredibly stressful for any viewer, let alone an educator, is that Carla seems like a fine teacher. She listens to her students, accepts when she has made a mistake, calls out her administration when she feels her students have been mistreated and practices–with great skill and stubborn determination–what every educator these days has been coached into for every single situation: empathy. Carol has clearly been teaching for a short period of time. She never comes off as jaded or disillusioned by the system that has failed many of her colleagues, who still say things like, “he’s a bad kid.” Unfortunately, her empathy and compassion for one of her students isn’t enough to save her in every situation. That’s the sad reality.
Why is that? Kore-eda Hirokazu’s more subdued “Monster” has a clear answer. The film takes a look at a teacher’s unfortunate situation from multiple perspectives and comes to the conclusion that “what actually happened doesn’t matter.” In this film, a mom (Sakura Ando) discovers her fifth-grader son (Soya Kurokawa) has a new wound on his ear, due to an incident with his teacher in the classroom. When she meets with the principal, teacher and other administration, she is given a heavily scripted, uncomfortable apology. This obviously wouldn’t stand with any parent. The longer these meetings go on, the more she realizes she is dealing with people who have no interest in helping her son, investigating the occurrence or giving her a satisfactory outcome (ie, letting the teacher go). We in the audience feel her frustration. Teachers often get coached into what to say in parent-teacher meetings, but there is something clearly wrong here.
“Monster” eventually backtracks and shifts its perspectives multiple times to give a clearer overview over what really happened in the classroom. The teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), has his side of the story, which would normally absolve him, but his private life also makes him a mark. Kore-eda’s sensitivity toward each of his characters helps make “Monster” a perfect example of how an incident at school can so easily be twisted from fact to legend. Once we know the entire story, there are no clear villains or heroes here. Just as in “The Teachers’ Lounge,” everyone, in their own way, is a victim of their limited perception on the events. What actually happened obviously does matter, but the sad reality remains that everyone has an opinion, every school has a board to answer to and those boards have public meetings and those meetings are well documented. The less said, the better, even if keeping a lid on things can still ruin lives.
The teacher in Georgia Oakley’s “Blue Jean” has her own tightrope to walk when it comes to her personal life and a relationship she has with one of her students. Set in England in 1988, Jean is forced to live a double life as a closeted gay teacher. A new student, Lois (Lucy Happiday), arrives at her school who might also be closeted. At the beginning of the film, Jean teaches her class about “fight or flight response” and how a person’s natural instincts might not align with what needs to be done in that moment. Jean gets put into the fight-or-flight position when her student gets bullied for being gay, fights back and ends up being taken to the office. Jean’s job demands she reprimand Lucy for instigating a physical confrontation, even though she probably believes the other student had it coming. This has always been a typical teacher conundrum. Violence is never the answer, but Jean’s sense of empathy has to take a backseat in order to keep up appearances. A similar situation plays out again later in the film and has even larger consequences for all.
Oakley’s depiction of a teacher’s life has a wider, more political focus than the other two films. Throughout “Blue Jean,” we’re reminded of the extreme conservatism that existed under Thatcher and her policies toward LGBTQ people. Jean, being a public-school teacher, has everything to lose just by showing up to work and possibly being found out. Such policies remain in effect today in certain American school districts where extreme conservatism has infiltrated the school boards and have called for banning library books that might have an LGBTQ character, or, in the case of the Fort Worth Independent School District, closing the school libraries altogether. Oakley’s film is smart about showing how a political party’s power and prejudices can trickle down to the youth and their educators in any country as they mimic the same speech and acts of racism and homophobia toward each other.
Not every film about teachers this year put their protagonists through delicate, career-changing situations. The animated comedy “Leo,” about an aging class pet (a 74-year-old lizard, voiced by Adam Sandler) who decides it’s time to break through the communication barrier and talk directly to the students in the classroom when they take him home for the weekend. Leo and his caged companion have seen the education world change and evolve since their arrival in 1949, and the students with it. Every week, at the insistence of the new long-term substitute teacher, Mrs. Malkin (voiced by Cecily Strong), privileged students with overbearing parents get to take Leo home for the weekend and end up getting some tough love about their lives in the process, often in the form of a song. With tunes like “You’re Not That Great,” “Dear Drone” and “When I Was Ten,” “Leo” becomes one of the most insightful and necessary films about today’s youth that has come down the pike in quite some time.
Many students whose parents pressure them into popularity, who monitor their every move (the kid who has a drone following him to school every day is just barely an exaggeration) and who feel they have no adults in their corner will see themselves in “Leo.” Writers Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler and Paul Sado add a twist by also having a song that is basically a love letter to the most thankless of professions, the substitute teacher, a caricature of typical elementary school evil at first, but who becomes more interesting later on. The character of Leo, in his old age and possibly facing death, has decided to use his last remaining months on the planet to tell the students and the teacher what they need to hear. I have been telling every student and every teacher I know to watch this film.
Another comedy, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s “Theater Camp,” also has some merit as a film about students and educators, in this case at a mid-level theater camp that takes place every summer and is on the verge of closing unless they can raise enough money to keep it open. While not set in the public education world, Gordon and Lieberman’s film still gets a lot right about some of the frustrating moments in any classroom: the class know-it-all who is the only one raising a hand; the overly ambitious teacher who drops everything in the middle of a lesson to take a phone call; getting blank stares from kids when you’re not the ‘cool’ teacher. “Theater Camp” can feel like a kind of catharsis for a teacher who wishes they could say certain things in certain situations but can’t.
Two movies from 2023 that weren’t quite about teaching still got it right when it comes to the awkwardness of being in front of students for the first time. Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms,” easily the funniest film of the year, saw Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri starting an after school “fight club” of sorts for girls on campus who want to learn self-defense. Sennott and Edebiri, clearly teaching without any hint of a plan, hilariously borrow from what they’ve seen on TV and in movies about tough teachers and instructors and fumble their way through their first lesson. Likewise, Echo Kellum, as the homeroom teacher in Kelly Freeman Craig’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret” has a wonderful first-day-of-teaching scene in which he sheds a bit of armor and comes clean about this being his first teaching job.
I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about the world of private schools and academia, but three films from this year delved into it with authority and elements of satire. Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” was a period piece, but still depicted everything a teacher should never do, with Paul Giamatti’s character talking down to his students, being unnecessarily cruel when it came to homework over the holidays and taking everything personally when it comes to conflicting with the students he has to babysit. Still, there’s a part of every educator that roots for him when we learn that he had no qualms about failing the son of a rich family who donated heavily to the institution. If the kid didn’t apply himself and did poor work, he had to be given an F, right? Not so, according to his superiors. In this world, how students are graded sometimes aligns with how much their parents pay for them to “succeed.”
Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” opened with its Black protagonist, a writer named Thelonius “Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), conflicting with one of his white students over the N word being written on the blackboard for the day’s literary lesson (it’s part of a book’s title). He can’t stand the overly performative wokeness of the student’s issue with seeing the word in the room and tries to steer her into looking at it within the context of the literature and the lesson. I imagine this is a common issue with today’s professors who have students who cannot see past the problematic and into the historical time period of the problem itself. There are generational gaps at work here that play themselves out regularly in this world where tenured instructors are just trying to get through the lessons they know so well without being lectured back by their own students.
In a funnier and more bizarre situation, Nicolas Cage’s character in Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario” has the misfortune of being the unwitting subject of everyone’s dreams when they sleep. At first, his students think it’s cool that he’s become a celebrity for such a random phenomenon. Of course, when he becomes the victim of cancel culture for something over which he has no control, he loses his students completely, because he’s now thought of as an awful person. Cage’s character is also lost in his own obsession with a book he’s trying to write and get published on a subject so esoteric (something about ants), nobody could possibly feign actual interest. Such is the life of a tenured professor who, perhaps, has been at it too long.
What about Jon Carney’s “Flora and Son”? Joseph Gordon Levitt was a teacher to Eve Hewson’s character who wanted to learn guitar over Zoom. That’s teaching, right? It is, of course, but Carney’s film is obviously pure fantasy. No lesson is ever that good over Zoom (but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it).
All of these films helped fill the gap where there should have been a third season of the brilliant “Abbott Elementary,” one of the most dead-on pieces of entertainment to depict life at an elementary school. On a weekly basis, I marveled at how every detail was perfectly executed from the lesson plans to the budgetary constraints so evident in every classroom to the school policies, to the teacher assistants, to the kids themselves. It feels like it’s written by actual teachers who have been dying to write about their own experiences, filtered through incredibly talented TV writers and a knock-out cast. I really miss that show right now.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with inspirational teacher movies either. Watching something like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Dead Poets Society” can serve to inspire any educator on a gloomy day, but you can always tell the young people who get into teaching because they may have been inspired by “School of Rock” (2004), thinking, “I can be cool with kids like Jack Black is.” I always think of Carl the Janitor in “The Breakfast Club” as a rebuttal when he says to Paul Gleeson, “you took a teaching position because you thought it would be fun. You get to have summers off. Then you found out it was actually work. That really bummed you out.” Teaching doesn’t have to be a bummer at all, but many of the movies written about here can be used in a classroom of budding educators to show them the flipside to the fantasy.
Other teaching films recommended: Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” (2008) feels like a close cousin to “The Teachers’ Lounge,” where a Parisian high school teacher deals with a racially mixed classroom on a daily basis and the challenging dynamics that take place. So does Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” (2012), in which Mads Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten assistant who becomes the victim of a child’s lie. On the gentler side, Nicolas Philibert’s documentary “To Be and To Have” (2003) depicts a year in the life of a rural schoolteacher and his limitless patience he has for all his students in every situation. I have a soft spot for Arthur Hiller’s “Teachers” (1984), despite its trite melodrama and grating earnestness. You can tell it came from a real place, initially, and I’ll bet much of it still rings true. Finally, Alexander Payne’s “Election” (1999) remains a classic, with many uncomfortable truths still present today, particularly the cars teachers drive, the way they talk to their students, and the never-ending struggle to engage them in an intellectual discourse and–often, but not always–coming up a bit short every time.
So, what brought on this wave of teacher films? Perhaps the dilemma on how to educate our children during the pandemic brought the world of elementary schools into focus and inspired some writers to take a deeper look. Maybe it’s the drama that unfolds in our nation’s school board meetings every month or the headlines about school districts that want to ban books in the name of “freedom.” Situations that ensue on a daily basis in any school, whether it be from teachers, students, principals, faculty, teacher assistants or any music teacher can be the stuff of high drama, unbearable suspense, or insightful comedy, as had been proven in 2023, without question the best year for movies on this subject.