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When Hollywood Goes to School, What Do We Learn?

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Unless you're offering generous terms, none of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards involved education. This is not to say they didn't contain educational moments, of course. "Life of Pi" delves into biological sciences and behavior conditioning. "Lincoln" demonstrates how history can come alive—like at a museum, only with less reading. (Maybe the Smithsonian could ask Daniel Day-Lewis to wander the grounds acting like Abraham Lincoln.) But, no, they're not about school.

I've seen on the Internet, following this year's Academy Awards, some murmurs that all Hollywood has to say about school anymore is in support of charter schools and against teachers. After all, one of the most hyped education movies of 2012 was "Won't Back Down," yet its ties to the conservative Walden Media had many teachers scowling. And that came on the tail of "Waiting for 'Superman'" in 2010. Has Hollywood given up on public schools?

(Dramatic pause.)

No, not really. 2012 was actually a good year for education films about traditional public schools, and in retrospect, especially for movies that centered around school climate. There are a lot of issues to mine from school climates (we have this blog, after all), and Hollywood went to it.

For instance, there's the well-received "Monsieur Lazhar," about an Algerian immigrant teacher living in Montreal, hired as a replacement for a teacher who commits suicide. The film delves into immigration policy and credentialing, and how teachers can need students as much as the other way around, especially in the wake of tragedy. It deals with Canadian policy, sure, but the issues would probably resonate with U.S. audiences.

On the other end of the spectrum were two comedies, "21 Jump Street" and "Here Comes the Boom" and, hey, I see you rolling your eyes. Stop that! There is truth in comedy. The former stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as two undercover cops investigating drug trafficking at their old public school. Tatum, whose abs you might recognize from "Magic Mike," was the big jock in high school, but now that Generation Y has gone nerd chic and empathetic, he's at the low end of the pecking order, displaced by the formerly unpopular Hill. It's a clever twist that shows the extent to which the football-player-and-cheerleaders-as-alphas model is shifting. (Not totally, but shifting.)

"Boom" is mostly a platform for Kevin James to do some Paul Blart-perfected pratfalls as the teacher who tries to save his cash-strapped school from cutting extracurricular activities by becoming an ultimate fighter. "Stand and Deliver" it's not, but it is literally a public school teacher going to the mat for his class, as well as a reminder of the pain that program cuts—and ultimately, school closings—can entail.

And finally, there's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," based on a novel that could very well be this generation's Catcher in the Rye. It explores how emotional and physical abuse plays out among students, and makes a good indirect case for better counseling programs, especially when it shows the stigma that still exists around being a gay teenager.

There are other valid concerns about film portrayals of schools. The teaching profession worries about being as hammered in fantasy as they feel they are in reality. As Education Week opinion blogger Nancy Flanagan wrote when the Cameron Diaz vehicle "Bad Teacher" came out in 2011, "Yeah, it's just a dumb movie. But lots of entertaining flicks have altered the national perception on single issues." And that can be very true.

There's an opposite perception, though, too: That when one well-hyped movie negatively portrays traditional schools (or in the case of "Bad Teacher," is marketed to that effect), the film industry must be out for blood. But for all the attention that certain conservative-funded, issue-based movies get, many more better-received movies also exist. "Won't Back Down" had one of the worst openings of all time, financially and critically, and that's not hyperbole. Hollywood doesn't seem to have sold out to a charter movement, and for every one of those films, there are likely to be five "Here Comes the Boom" movies. (Not that I'm sure everyone is clamoring for "Here Comes the Boom 2: The Boom Boom"—much as I could end up watching that.)

Today, "A Place at the Table" opens in limited release. The documentary explores issues of food scarcity, and promises to focus especially on how childhood hunger affects schools. We'll examine it next week. And if you're hoping for more movies about the best that public education can offer, well, pray for "The Magic School Bus" to be picked up:

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