An acting exercise that never breaks a sweat, Chalk takes its title from an incident in which a novice teacher finds that his students have hidden his chalk. If this isn’t exactly a useful metaphor for a teacher’s existence, it does give a sense of just how dull writer-director Mike Akel’s mockumentary is. This is a film in which the hiding of a piece of chalk could reasonably be identified as one of the most dynamic moments.
Akel and co-scripter Chris Mass both did time as teachers, and they apparently returned from classroom combat with little more than four stereotypes: awkward first-timer Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), self-obsessed big mouth Mr. Stroope (Mass), officious phys-ed teacher Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), and overwhelmed Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), a former teacher who’s not enjoying her first year as an assistant principal. Each one has a modest storyline: Lowrey finds teaching really hard but gets better at it; Stroope loses some of his cockiness after a bruising campaign to become teacher of the year; Webb gradually realizes that no one can stand her; and Reddell comes to understand that becoming an administrator has made her into, well, an administrator.
Shot on digital video at a Texas high school, Chalk intermittently attempts to resemble a documentary. But faux-doc touches, like asides in which the four characters directly address the camera, clash with aimlessly arty sequences, like the one in which a conversation between Webb and Reddell is shot through mail slots. Actual jokes are rare, and most of them are undermined by deadpan delivery. Lowrey’s opening-day explanation of why he’s the new history teacher—because “Mr. Fletcher was found guilty”—sinks, and things get no funnier from there.
Chalk is probably inspired by such Christopher Guest ensemble satires as Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind, and Akel’s quartet of teachers share something with Guest’s show-biz losers: phenomenal self-absorption. The film’s two big events are the teacher-of-the-year contest and a “spelling hornet” in which students test Lowrey and other faculty members on their ability to spell hip-hop neologisms. (The soundtrack, however, is all indie pop, featuring cult acts like Sufjan Stevens and Aberfeldy.) Students are bystanders in the film’s episodes, most of which recount the four central characters’ quest for increased status. It seems that Akel and Mass left their previous gigs under the impression that school is a place for teachers, not teaching. And that’s not amusing at all.