Main cast: Ryan Reynolds (Michael D’Angelo), David Paymer (Matt Warner), Kate Vernon (Ellie Warner), Andrew Robb (Dylan Warner), Shylo Sharity (Chase Witherspoon), Lelia Johnson (Denise Davies), and John Astin (Stormin’ Norman Warner)
Director: William Dear
Before he became Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds was more well known – and not always in a good way – as that Val Wilder dude. Now, if you have seen that movie, imagine Van Wilder finally growing up after having met a teacher that inspired him to graduate, and you’d have a good idea of his role in School of Life. This is an ABC TV movie, and it’s all about the glory of inspiring teachers making a difference in kids’ lives. Interestingly enough, the one who learns the most from the teacher is actually another teacher – Matt Warner.
Matt Warner has a good life. He has an adorable wife, Ellie, and they are both nice people. She works at a crisis centre, he teachers biology at Fallbrook Middle School, and their teenage kid Dylan seems well-adjusted and generally free from teen angst. There is one thing, though – Matt teaches at the same school as his father, a popular history tutor known to all as Stormin’ Norman Warner. Norman has won Teacher of the Year for the last 43 years – 43 years! – and is a spry and very popular teacher among the staff and the students. Norman is practically a legend for his charm and his willingness to go outside the box, while Matt is more of a conventional by-the-book sort. Dylan, who provides the voiceover in this movie, notes accurately that Matt is nowhere close to Norman in terms of personality and popularity.
When Norman collapses and dies of a heart attack, Matt begins to feel the pressure of having to live up to his late father’s reputation. It doesn’t help that the headmaster begins telling the new kids that Matt is the son of the great Norman. Poor Matt is determined to win the Teacher of the Year award, but his hopes are increasingly dashed when Norman’s replacement, Michael D’Angelo, shows up on the first day and gives a rousing speech that has the entire school chanting his name. It gets worse from there. Michael is everything Matt isn’t – he charms the students easily, his unorthodox teaching methods has his students clamoring for more and passing the exams with spectacular results, and he even bloody hits the home run in the staff-student baseball tournament. Matt begins to crack under pressure, and he becomes determined to find Michael’s weakness – he has to have one, surely – and exploit it. When he finally discovers Michael’s secret, however, it is one that will shake him to the core and change his life irrevocably.
Like his cheesy name would indicate, Michael D’Angelo is a poorly developed Magical Avatar Gary Stu, one that shows up out of nowhere to change the lives of everyone in his path, but Ryan Reynolds has just the right amount of charisma and bravado to pull off what could have been a thankless, awkward role. The script believes that Michael is far more inspiring than he actually is, as a big chunk of Michael’s philosophy and lines actually feel more clunky and contrived in a Hallmark-gone-ugly way. Michael’s first day speech comparing high school to Star Wars, for instance, is more contrived than inspiring, but Mr Reynold’s delivery makes that speech work. He sounds earnest and sincere, but at the same time, he delivers that sincerity in a light, mischievous tone that makes me chuckle.
In fact, the entire script is on the clunky and plodding side, as it heavy-handedly drives home its messages while lifting elements from other “wonderful teacher” movies in a rather uninspired and even uncreative manner. But the cast makes everything work. David Paymer plays Matt with a winning kind of bumbling earnestness that makes him more likable than he could have been. The poor fellow does care for his students’ education, only, he just lets his insecurities get the better of him. The movie delivers a rather mixed message here – Norman had always tried to tell Matt that there is no need to try so hard to be like him, and Ellie also tries to tell him the same thing, but when Matt finally gets it, he does it by being just like his father and Michael. So, it’s being yourself by emulating someone else? Still, Mr Paymer makes Matt’s character work. Like Mr Reynolds, he rises about the derivative script to make his role work. He also has the right amount of comic timing, without going overboard, to make the funnier moments of his character’s breakdown work.
The whole thing is a very pleasant watch so far, but I’m surprised by how choked up and emotional I get when the movie reaches its predictable conclusion. I suspect this is mostly because of how the script and the director handle the central theme of the movie in a way that I can relate to and even empathize with. It stops short of being saccharine or exploitative, and ends in a note that is sweet and happy without overdosing on too much sentimentality. It’s still sentimental – this is, after all, a TV movie from ABC – but not to the point of giving me cavities or making me feel that the whole thing is just too much.
Oh, and the kiddie cast isn’t too annoying – that’s a plus, although Andrew Robb is a bit stiff in his role. And I have to warn you, if you dislike Untyde’s song Shine, brace yourself as this movie plays bits of that song at what seems like every ten minutes in this movie. I like that song, fortunately, although I admit I feel like I’ve been listening to it non-stop for a week when the movie ends!
School of Life won’t break any new grounds, but it can still break my heart and heal it back. It’s not an amazing movie, but it has heart. Thus, I can’t help but to love it back.