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July 1, 2016

Teaching Mrs. Tingle

by Franz Patrick


Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite missing a level of wit and cleverness of similar and more successful movies within the teen dark comedy genre, “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” written and directed by Kevin Williamson, makes one great decision. The title character, played by Helen Mirren, is such a despicable teacher, the material offers no room to change her ways within the lean ninety-minute running time.

The picture has a consistent breezy pacing that is just right for the type of comedy it hopes to create. Just about every other scene moves the plot forward which is occasionally interrupted by tolerable hiccups involving a romantic connection between Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes), a potential high school valedictorian, and Luke (Barry Watson), the class slacker. Slower moments can be easily overlooked as a whole because there is great energy shared among the high school students with varying stakes in the battle of wills against a most fearsome educator.

Mirren is a standout especially because her character is tied to a bed during the majority of the movie. She does a lot with the lines she is given, especially during scenes when Mrs. Tingle attempts to gather key information about her students’ personal lives so that when one of her captors is alone, she can plant seeds of doubt. Equally entertaining to watch—but in a different way—is Marisa Coughlan who plays Leigh Ann’s best friend named Jo Lynn. One of Coughlan’s shining moments comes in the form of Jo Lynn attempting to reenact the climax of a ‘70s horror classic—which is absolutely hilarious.

What does not work about the film, however, is its use of soundtrack to communicate the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This approach is very mid- to late-‘90s and it has never worked for me. It is an excuse to circumvent a more thoughtful writing. If one were to strip away the songs and the nostalgia, what is left is hollow characters who do the things they do simply because the plot requires them to do it. To the writer-director’s credit, there are a few exchanges between Mrs. Tingle and Leigh Ann which exposes the latter’s fear of losing a scholarship that would enable her to attend college and leave the small town. However, these exchanges are pedestrian, nothing special, have been tackled in other, better films.

Vivica A. Fox and Molly Ringwald make brief appearances, the former playing the school counselor and the latter portraying a school administrator/substitute teacher. It is a curiosity that they were not used more considering that both have formidable screen presence. The movie, when it it is not as consistently funny, tends to rely on the power of presence—mainly Mirren’s—and so one cannot help but expect Fox and Ringwald to have a bigger role eventually in the story.

“Teaching Mrs. Tingle” is far less interested in providing life lessons than it is pushing the envelope. I wished that it had pushed further and had risked more often in possibly being thought of as cruel or mean-spirited. When it tests what it can get away with, that is when the material is most electric. I enjoyed and craved to laugh more consistently during the most inappropriate gambles.

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