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July 25, 4 p.m.
July 26, 5 p.m.
They say: “Welcome Back Kotter vs. COPS, King Arthur vs. No Child Left Behind. Watch this suburban white boy from Indiana battle the students, the establishment, and himself in a South Central classroom. Laughter, tears and extra credit provided. A true story.”
Brian’s take: All right, so I walk out of They Call Me Mister Fry, and here’s my first thought: “Mister Fry Is The Patch Adams Of Education.” (It appears in my mind just like that, with all the capital letters.) Genius, isn’t it? I’m happy, I’m whistling, I’m skipping, I’m handing out Now and Laters to babies, I’ve got the first line of my review.
Not so fast. Turns out I wouldn’t be the first to make the Jack Freiberger-Robin Williams connection.
So besides a pedagogical Patch, or perhaps Mr. Fry, what shall I call Jack Freiberger, the cuddly and lovable protagonist of this one man show? How about a tearjerker, a laughmonger, or an “awwww”-squeezer. How about a man so endearing you almost want to see him orchestrate some kind of sick and depraved orgy during his lesson, just so you can accuse him of a flaw.
All right, maybe I wouldn’t call him that last thing. It was titillating enough to watch Fry’s classroom foibles as a neophyte fifth grade teacher, particularly his relationship with two problem students, Anthony and Jasmine. As Freiberger tosses his hands and grunts his yos, or clanks his knees and chomps his gum, the novelty of a white, middle-aged teacher standing in front of a room of people and imitating his Latino and black fifth grade inner-city students is magnified. Freiberger dares to play the kids’ stereotypical ticks for laughs, and at first this makes the impersonations a bit uncomfortable. But as his relationships with the students deepen, and the obstacles that confront them escalate, so do Freiberger’s characterizations undergo a sneaky metamorphosis: the belligerent Latino student who says “yo” every other word becomes an 11-year-old who speaks sign language and pulls a cappuccino out of his pocket while he’s in detention, and the nervous, gum-chewing daughter of a single mother becomes a confident — albeit still fatherless — young woman.
But here’s what Freiberger dramatizes most masterfully, and most intimately: that formative instant, which occurs in every child’s life (though earlier for kids with these kinds of troubled lives), when you realize that adults (your parents, your grandparents, your teachers, your Mister Fries) are more terrified of the big-bad-world than you are. It’s a devastating epiphany, and it’s Freiberger’s willingness to relive that moment with his students that makes They Call Me Mister Fry such a triumphant tragedy of self-recognition.
See it if: You liked Welcome Back Kotter and Boston Public, not to mention all those feel-good teaching shows in between.
Skip it if: You’d rather watch the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off marathon on TNT.