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TEACHING MRS. TINGLE

by: Michael Dequina

Once upon a time, there was a 10th grade English class run by one Mr. Jerry Stover, a teacher who was a pain to (with a few exceptions) all of his students but made an extra effort to continually tear down one student in particular. This usually strong English student found all of his best efforts met with indifference at best, outright derision at worst by Stover, who often seized every opportunity to humiliate the student in front of the whole class. When called on to do an oral report on a reading assignment, the student only got about two words in before Stover criticized his barely-begun report and asked him to sit down. But that was nothing compared to what came at the end of the school year, when the student's year-ending speech project--which was capped off with a spirited song number that was wholeheartedly embraced and warmly praised by his classmates--was verbally torn to shreds by Stover in front of everyone. That public attack was just a warm-up for a comment Stover made during a subsequent private meeting with the student: "I don't like you."

As you can guess, the student in question was yours truly, and while it did take some added effort--and, I'd like to think, guilt on Stover's part--to get an A in that class, I didn't have to resort to anything resembling the over-the-top antics presented in hot scribe Kevin Williamson's directorial debut, Teaching Mrs. Tingle. My own experiences undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of this admittedly junky but wickedly watchable revenge fantasy. I immediately identified with the film's protagonist, solid A student Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes), who, in an early scene, presents a much-worked-on project in her history class, only to have her presentation abruptly cut short by vicious barbs hurled by the class's instructor, Mrs. Eve Tingle (Helen Mirren). This scene (and the entire film, for that matter) has been criticized for being grossly exaggerated, and indeed it is, to biting comic effect. But there is a ring of truth--not just for me personally, who knows it is possible for teachers to have unfounded personal grudges against students; but I'm sure for many other people who have had similar, if not overly so, trying experiences with hardass teachers.

Williamson sends all basis in reality out the window, however, when the film's main story kicks into gear. After Mrs. Tingle falsely accuses Leigh Ann of cheating, she and her friends Luke Churner (Barry Watson) and Jo Lynn Jordan (Marisa Coughlan) confront Mrs. Tingle at her home. One thing leads to another, and soon Mrs. Tingle is tied to her bed, held prisoner by the three students, who try to reason with her--and teach her an overdue lesson or two. The stage is set for a tense and witty psychological battle between the teens and Tingle, who is as adept at manipulative mind games as she is mean.

For a first-time director, Williamson shows great skill working with actors. While Watson is fairly bland as the hunky bad boy, he does share palpable chemistry with the other core three, who make good impressions. Holmes is an instantly likable screen presence, and her calm and poise grounds the film in some level of reality and plays well off of newcomer Coughlan, who has the showier role as the kooky aspiring actress Jo Lynn. The showiest role of them all, of course, is the title character, and Serious Actress Mirren sinks her teeth and then some into this change-of-pace part. Her venomous performance has been criticized as being one-dimensional, but the point of the part is to be an over-the-top, love-to-hate villain, and does she ever succeed at that.

That said, one does wish there were more of an explanation of Tingle's wicked ways, or at least a clearer one for her malice toward Leigh Ann; it is implied that she is jealous of her ability and bright prospects, but the implication is a bit too vaguely made and not altogether confirmed. (After all, Mrs. Tingle does have one bright

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