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Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 20 August 1999

Teaching Mrs. Tingle Written and Directed by 
Kevin Williamson 

Starring Marisa Coughlan, 
Vivica A. Fox, Katie Holmes, 
Michael McKean, Helen Mirren,
 Molly Ringwald, Liz Stauber, 
Jeffrey Tambor, Lesley Ann Warren, 
Barry Watson, and John Patrick White

Imagine what Kevin Williamson sees when he surveys his domain. As the much-in-demand writer of the Screams (number three is on the way), I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the WB's hugely popular Dawson's Creek, he would seem to have before him a vast space of Yes, a realm rife with money and talent and hope and consumption. Everyone wants him. Or more precisely, everyone wants to have a piece of his very profitable action.

Teaching Mrs. TingleWhile it may be that this 34-year-old has a limited number of ideas that will seem relevant to today's teenagers, his peers -- those ex-teens who handle the money -- think he can do no wrong, which means that he has a lot of room, for the moment at least, to explore this world of his own making. So far, he seems to respect, accommodate, and even, on occasion, defer to the values and perspectives, the angsts and delights, of his primary audience. He celebrates their ordinariness and their exceptionalness, their basic pluck in mundane and strange situations. Consider the Screamers or Dawson and Pacey and Joey: they're all pleasant, attractive, reassuring kids who talk and brood and care too much about those things that tend to perplex more than a few adolescents, then and now.

Simultaneously remembered and projected, this teen world is a bit like a ride at Disneyland, fantastic, fun, and small. It is -- unsurprisingly, I suppose -- a very white, middle class, suburban one. If the neighborhood around the Creek is generally non-violent and mundane, the horror movies clarify the cultural issues, the stuff that's really at stake (as most horror movies do). This makes it unthreatening, easy for white advertisers to imagine selling, easy for white teenagers to consume. It's romantic and improved over the real thing, consummately consumable. But it's also full of fearfulness and monsters, usually in the form of adults.

For all the girls in Williamson's horror world -- Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, even, once Brandy -- it's a place built for boys, where the most awful threats have to do with sex and gendering processes, those teen rituals where you learn to be men and women. And of course, the scariest notions have to do with feminizing, specifically, sex that is violent or violence that is sexed: penetration by knives, fish hooks, and now, in Teaching Mrs. Tingle, a crossbow.

Reportedly, Williamson wrote the Teaching Mrs. Tingle script years ago, when he first moved from New Bean, North Carolina to LA, land of very. Based on an ultra-bitchy high school teacher he once knew -- and, presumably, resembling a teacher everyone once knew -- Mrs. T. is a monster of awful proportions, able to thwart or secure a student's future with a single stoke in her grade book.

The danger posed by such singular power revisit themes from last year's quite brilliant The Faculty (written by Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez, who has a sure and slickly cynical touch). In that film, the teachers were literally possessed by alien parasites from another planet, body-snatchers-style. In Teaching Mrs. Tingle (originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, and renamed after the Columbine shootings for obvious reasons) the threat is more conventional, less spectacular.

Teaching Mrs. TingleThough she is not from outer space and she's not equipped with literal tentacles or nifty special effects, Mrs. T. (Helen Mirren) is alien enough to her students: she wears crisp suits and matching sensible pumps. She glowers perpetually, she hates her life, and therefore, she hates her students as well. Or at least this would be the view of the students, who are, of course, Williamson's central concern, as protagonists and consumers. Mrs. T. embodies a banal evil: she deliberately damages her students emotionally and materially because she can. Or more precisely, she flunks them for aspiring to surpass her own desperate, go-nowhere small town existence.

With Mrs. Tingle's arc so clearly in place -- she will be taught a lesson -- the rest of the plot follows a predictable but also perverse course. Immediately, she's out to get Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes, so far best known as Dawson's desired object Joey). Grandsboro High senior Leigh Ann is painfully perfect, daughter of a hardworking and plastic-name-tagged waitress Faye (Lesley Ann Warren). Though her mom smokes and drinks too much, Leigh Ann is the most excellent daughter imaginable. Earnest, dedicated, and up for a college scholarship if only she can get an A in history class, she cleans up after her mother and manages her own busy high school class schedule. Because Leigh Ann's motive for grade-grubbing is so patently noble - to provide her depressed mother with a vicarious ticket out of town - she ironically has nowhere to go as a character: she's not going to learn anything, she's not going to change.

When Mrs. Tingle unfairly accuses her of cheating, Leigh Ann goes to the teacher's creepy Victorian house at night to plead her case (surely an unlikely scenario, but who's counting?). She's accompanied by her fellow accusee and best friend, Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan), and the class derelict and beautiful boy-object Luke (Barry Watson). The confrontation goes badly, Jo Lynn picks up a crossbow someone has made for a class project, and poof! Mrs. Tingle ends up spending much of the film in her mannish silk pajamas, tied to her bedposts, while the kids ponder their suddenly dire predicament.

Eve Tingle is easy to dislike, stereotypical, two-dimensional, monotonous: she's the first woman, the last woman, the woman who alarms and irritates people who used to be male students. Apparently what makes her especially horrifying in Williamson's memory/mind is her inappropriate masculinity: she berates and cajoles the kids, brutally and unemotionally. Along with her supposed masculine threat, however, she also poses an ambiguous one, as she is also quickly demasculinized by her illicit affair with an oafish coach (Jeffrey Tambor) who shares with her some especially corny pet names for his penis.

Teaching Mrs. TingleDespite or perhaps because if all this easy targeting, the script becomes increasingly unwieldy and bizarre. It's not so much that it doesn't make sense -- the story manages a kind of internal logic -- but the characters seem to fall into movie-like poses more than they follow their own possibilities: save for Jo Lynn's weird-ass but oddly likeable rendition of Linda Blair's demonic bed-flopping, the kids seem to flounder between a tedious lack of imagination (jealous in-fighting or sexual acting out when you expect it, that is, when their situation seems most precarious) and outrageous plot conveniences (the coach seems unable to tell the difference between her and budding actress Jo Lynn when he's wearing a blindfold).

This general flatness undermines what the movie does almost well, namely, take high school anxieties about omnipotent teachers seriously. Make that half-seriously: the teacher is as vicious as she would seem to the average high schooler, but her motives, once revealed, are fatuous predictable. The monstrosity that makes the story interesting becomes inane.

The kids' trajectories are even more pathetic. They spend the bulk of their screen time doggedly discussing their options and non-options (in a way that -- oh! -- recalls Dawson's Creek, but there, such talk is quite charming). But Leigh Ann, Jo Lynn, and Luke are left with no options. The script bails on them. They and their audience deserve better.

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