Despite the fact that it's based on a true story, there's nothing particularly original about "Dangerous Minds." This tale of a sincere, high-minded teacher helping a classroom full of poverty-stricken youths achieve a sense of satisfaction from education is as old as "The Blackboard Jungle" or "To Sir, With Love" . . . or more recently, "Stand and Deliver" and "Stand By Me."
But anchored by Michelle Pfeiffer's sterling central performance, "Dangerous Minds" is a strong addition to the genre, even if it doesn't quite go to the head of the class.
Pfeiffer is newly divorced ex-Marine LouAnne Johnson (the film is based on Johnson's book, "My Posse Don't Do Homework"), who wanders into a Northern California high school looking for a job, expecting nothing more than part-time substitute-teaching. To her surprise, however, she is offered a full-time position to teach "academy" students, described to her as "passionate, energetic, challenging." But after her first taste of their crude, disruptive behavior, she refers to them as "rejects from hell." And the only encouragement her friend and fellow teacher Hal (George Dzundza) has to offer is, "All you gotta do is get their attention or quit."
Not one to quit, LouAnn settles for getting their attention. Then she defies school rules by offering the kids incentives for doing classwork and for thoughtful discussion. After a time she sees the fruits of her labors as the students settle into a pattern of studying and learning English, with an emphasis on poetry. (Although, one might rightly wonder how she can continue to finance these rewards on a teacher's salary.)
LouAnne begins to care deeply about these kids and is naturally drawn into their personal lives, attempting to convince a pregnant student to stay in school, trying to keep class members out of gang fights, visiting homes to talk with parents, etc.
Despite its glossy veneer, and the feeling that the truth has been somewhat cleansed of its grittier elements, the film tries to balance things out by demonstrating that some of these kids don't, won't or can't keep up. And it's heartbreaking when kids are yanked from school by parents, are forced to drop out or are claimed by street violence.
Pfeiffer humanizes LouAnn by giving her a sense of humor and by making her confident, optimistic and slightly nervous (she's constantly munching junk food, primarily Cheetos and Butterfingers). LouAnn isn't afraid of hard work and she's committed enough to spend the necessary time with individual students. Pfeiffer is wonderful in the role, though the character is certainly underdeveloped.
The youngsters who play those students are uniformly good, with notable turns by Bruklin Harris as Callie, the smartest of the group; Renoly Santiago as Raul, whose innocence shows through, despite his tough attitude; and Wade Dominguez as Emilio, the class ring-leader.
"Dangerous Minds," scripted by Ronald Bass ("Rain Man," "The Joy Luck Club") and directed by John N. Smith (TV's "The Boys of St. Vincent"), has a number of highlights, including "the Dylan-Dylan" contest" (finding parallels in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan).
When the action moves into the schoolyard, Smith's direction takes on a pseudo-documentary feel, but, thankfully, he resists any temptation toward distracting camera moves during dialogue-driven scenes. The hard-driving soundtrack score (by Wendy & Lisa) lends some urban oomph, though Smith does occasionally let it overwhelm the action.
"Dangerous Minds" is rated R for violence, profanity and vulgarity. Considering the subject matter, however, the language doesn't seem too excessive, and a PG-13 might not be out of order. Certainly teens would get the most out of what the film has to say.