Surrounded by the eccentric faculty of Truman High School, English teacher Mitch Carter, an outstanding husband, father, and fledgling soccer coach, becomes the standout winner of the California Teacher of the Year award. His achievement inspires a documentary, along with a tempting offer to leave academia that may be too good to pass up.
That is the short synopsis of Teacher of the Year, which made its Los Angeles premiere on Saturday, June 7 at the 2014 Dances with Films Festival. While the device of the “mockumentary” (made most famous in Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap) has been overworked by filmmakers, writer-director Jason Strouse breathes fresh life into it with a solid, funny, script, a stellar cast, and outstanding character development. While Teacher of the Year is definitely outrageous in terms of its comedic elements, the dramatic underbelly bleeds through, keeping you weighted to the characters and what happens to them, and even managing to tug some heart strings.
The film focuses on the choices that teachers are required to make every day, and whether the outcome of those choices are truly worth the sweat, time, and emotional equity that the good ones put into their work. Daily sparring with teenage hormone cases, resentful faculty, adversarial parents, and cutthroat bureaucracy, the film begs the question: Should teachers receive hazard pay? Yet, it also explores the impact that good teachers make on the lives of their students, and how the support and friendship of fellow faculty can support and shape one’s teaching—and one’s life.
The believability of the situations and characters has much to do with the fact that Strouse is himself a teacher (and probably a very good one). He was able to translate this knowledge and passion into the character of Mitch Carter, as well as the other colorful and equally fascinating faculty members. Producer Lainie Jordan, casting director Jami Rudofsky, and Strouse also pulled together an excellent cast which includes Matt Letscher (Her, Scandal, The West Wing) as “Mitch Carter”, Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, MADtv, RENO 911!) as “Ron Douche”, Sunny Mabrey (Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, Species 3) as “Kate Carter”, and The Sklar Brothers—Jason and Randy (Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The United Stats of America) as “Clive & Lowell Hammer”. The production team garnered some major casting coups with Tamlyn Tomita (The Karate Kid II, The Joy Luck Club, True Blood) as “Vivian Lew”, and Shari Belafonte (Nip/Tuck, Babylon 5: Thirdspace, Hotel) as “Robin Rivers”.
What truly gave Strouse’s film street cred was his involvement of actual high school students in the work of filmmaking, from cast to crew. While no doubt bringing a level of unpredictability to the 11-day shoot, it also produced a freshness and unbridled energy to the film that cannot be manufactured on a set populated by professionals. Strouse's gamble paid off. This independent film not only has the authenticity of the high school experience and atmosphere, but a professional look and feel, excellent pacing and comedic timing, along with a killer score that’s worth the price of an iTunes download.
Teacher of the Year won the Audience Award for Best Comedy Feature and the Jury Award for Best Screenplay at the 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival. Look for it at a film festival near you—hopefully Strouse and Jordan's Lower Merion Films can acquire a distribution deal, so you can enjoy this comedy gem in the comfort of your own home.