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Streaming: The Holdovers and the best films about teachers

<span>Clockwise from top left: Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love (1967); Parker Sevak and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher (2018); Robert Donat in 'genre grandaddy' Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939); Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers (2023).</span><span>Composite: Allstar; Ronald Grant Archive; Focus Features</span>
Clockwise from top left: Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love (1967); Parker Sevak and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher (2018); Robert Donat in 'genre grandaddy' Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939); Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers (2023).Composite: Allstar; Ronald Grant Archive; Focus Features

I had a few teachers I adored in my years at school – and one or two, perhaps, who even inspired me in some capacity – but I can’t say a film about my relationship with them would make for particularly thrilling viewing. Teaching is hard graft, and often thankless; even the best in the profession are rarely rewarded with the kind of dewy, triumphant tributes that cap off many a Hollywood classroom drama. Yet the inspirational teacher film remains a mainstay: film-makers never tire of imagining the schooldays they’d like to have had.

Paul Giamatti offers a variation on the type in The Holdovers, out on VOD last week: the curmudgeonly, academically oriented teacher with (surprise!) a heart of gold beneath it all. Alexander Payne’s misfit comedy counts for its emotional effect on the familiarity of its characters and settings. Giamatti’s crusty classics professor, outmoded but still with something to give, is essentially an American rewrite of the antiquated public schoolmaster at the centre of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, so beautifully played by Michael Redgrave in 1951 (Internet Archive), and again by Albert Finney in a 1994 remake that’s more readily streamable.

The 1970s New England boys’ prep school that houses The Holdovers, meanwhile, feels only a stone’s throw from the similarly stiff establishment that was shaken up by Robin Williams’s unorthodox English teaching in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989). Payne’s film, like Weir’s, is much loved for the open sentimentality of its cross-generational male bonding; both, I confess, leave me slightly cold. Even I’m not hardened, though, to the weepy charms of their genre grandaddy, Goodbye, Mr Chips, an unabashedly heart-crushing reflection on a devoted Latin teacher’s almost six decades in the classroom, sublimating his dreams of parenthood into educational mentorship. It’s better in its 1939 version, with a pitch-perfect Robert Donat, than in Peter O’Toole’s wobbly 1969 musical vehicle, but take your pick.

As I wrote 18 months ago on Sidney Poitier’s passing, the actor aced both sides of the classroom drama: as the rebellious student to Glenn Ford’s intrepid ex-navy teacher in the excellent Blackboard Jungle (1955), and, more than a decade later, as the compassionate immigrant teacher winning over a surly gaggle of East End pupils in the more soft-centred To Sir, With Love.

The story of the humble educator reaching through to disadvantaged inner-city teens is a familiar one, repeated in such corny Hollywood efforts as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, but it can be made more interesting. 2006’s superb Half Nelson blurred the moral lines, with Ryan Gosling fully earning his Oscar nomination as a caring and innovative Brooklyn history teacher managing a debilitating drug habit. In French director Laurent Cantet’s marvellous 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class, the heated social debates between a secondary school teacher in the Paris banlieues and his restless, deprived students are rivetingly even-handed.

Cantet’s film plays with documentary technique in its realism, though the classroom can be a rich setting for outright nonfiction: see Nicolas Philibert’s wonderful Être et Avoir (2002), following a year in the life of a teacher single-handedly nurturing children aged four to 12 in a small rural schoolhouse; or, more recently, the three-and-a-half-hour German gem Mr Bachmann and His Class (2021), in which mixed cultural backgrounds fuel the classroom dialogue. Another German film, Frank Ripploh’s 1981 Taxi zum Klo (Peccadillo Pictures) – a brilliantly candid, ribald portrait of a gay primary school teacher balancing his personal and professional lives – was years ahead of its time in its examination of LGBTQ politics in the education system. Likewise, the vital 1978 British indie Nighthawks also sees a gay teacher confronting his own students’ prejudices, to gripping effect.

And what of the bad teachers? Payne gave us a far less noble portrayal of the profession in his best film, Election (1999), a riotous war of wills between Matthew Broderick’s petty suburban civics teacher and Reese Witherspoon’s dauntless teen overachiever – though Broderick’s character would win teacher of the year in comparison with Cate Blanchett’s classroom groomer and Judi Dench’s venomous senior schoolmarm in 2007’s deliciously lurid melodrama Notes on a Scandal. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s remarkable performance in the underseen The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) occupies a greyer area: she’s a dedicated and conscientious educator, but is she pushing the apparent poetry prodigy in her preschool class for his benefit or hers?

All titles available to rent on multiple platforms unless specified.

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