The Ron Clark Story, which premiered August 13th on TNT is the latest in a string of “teacher inspires underachieving children to dream big and attain their goals.” It stars Matthew Perry as Ron Clark, a teacher who specialized in raising test scores and who left a job in North Carolina to teach in Harlem. At first, he is unable to find work as a teacher and works as a waiter. But, one day, as he goes from school to school, he happens upon one right when a teacher is leaving.
The teacher had just been fighting with a student and quits right then and there. Clark takes the opportunity to offer his services to Principal Turner (Ernie Hudson). Although Principal Turner initially refuses, he finally offers to let Clark teach the honor students. However, Clark is drawn to an unruly class of sixth graders, the same one the teacher who quit had taught. He’s told that these students are the worst in the school and test at the bottom in standardized test scores. Clark still insists that he can turn the kids around.
The story follows a typical pattern. Clark is idealistic at first. But, the class has been used to getting rid of teachers. Their ringleader is Shameika Wallace (Hannah Hodson), a smart little girl who believes that Clark is an intruder in what she sees as her school. She channels her intelligence into making him miserable. Other students include the class clown, the sullen tough kid from a violent foster home, and the student from India, who likes Clark, but is afraid to challenge the group.
While Clark tries to use a strict but fun method of teaching, they block him in every way. One day, the pressure becomes too much and he walks out in the middle of the day, telling the students, “You win.” However, a pep talk from a friend sends him back the next day. He gradually wins the students over as well as the parents, who are suspicious of this white teacher trying to make a difference in their children’s lives. Anyone familiar with this type of film knows the story ends happily.
The Ron Clark Story doesn’t set out to be original or innovative. The topic doesn’t allow for that. But, it is enjoyable, and despite being a familiar genre, also is inspiring. Besides the predictability of the story, it has been criticized for being another “white teacher saves minority students” movie. While a valid criticism, it doesn’t mean that Clark’s story is worth telling any less. It also helps that the real Ron Clark insisted that the students’ stories be as important as his own.
Naturally, the main focus is on him, but it manages to make the sample of students it centers on human and interesting. They are individuals and the work they do is as important to their success as Clark’s help. Some scenes are also too corny, such as Clark teaching the kids a presidential rap to help them learn the presidents in order. This actually happened, though. It still doesn’t make watching Matthew Perry rapping any less awkward. There is also a romance plot that is unnecessary, but ultimately doesn’t get in the way of the main story.
What helps the movie is the acting. Matthew Perry is charming and earnest as Clark. He also brings depth to the part. In the scene where he leaves in the middle of class, he violently shakes a desk with Shameika sitting in it. This was part of the script, but his acting made the anger believable.
His look of dawning horror as he sees the shocked look of the children is also well acted. This acting and the scene helps Clark from seeming too perfect. It offsets scenes such as when a pneumonia stricken Clark faints in the classroom and has to be carried away in an ambulance because he couldn’t let the students down. Hannah Hodson, as Shameika is also good.
Both as a troublemaker, and later when she begs Principal Turner not to fire him when her mother objects to his meddling in her daughter’s life, her acting is spot on. Her personality is still the same; she just channels her energies differently as Clark gains her respect. The other kids also seem normal, neither total reject or saints just looking for a savior in Clark.
The Ron Clark Story won’t set the world on fire, but it is a pleasant two hours out of your life.