Friday August 20, 1999
There seems to be a teacher in everyone's memory who punished rather than instructed, who belittled rather than inspired. More often than not such teachers tend to single out the most vulnerable kids and make life miserable for them. Even if you escaped being targeted yourself you never quite forget such a teacher; every now and then you wonder if your victimized classmates suffered any permanent damage.
In his knockout directorial debut writer Kevin Williamson taps into such universal memories with his shrewd and energetic dark comedy "Teaching Mrs. Tingle." Few of us, happily, had to endure anyone quite as monstrous as small-town Grandsboro High history teacher Mrs. Tingle, played to the delicious hilt by Helen Mirren, who tempers a Medea-like ferocity with just the right amount of humor to make her malevolence amusing.
However, for bright and pretty Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes) Mrs. Tingle is no laughing matter. She needs that A in history to land the college scholarship that will allow her to escape Grandsboro for a better life, one filled with opportunities and possibilities that eluded her supportive, loving single mother (a radiant, unbilled Lesley Ann Warren).
For her term paper Leigh Ann has chronicled a year in the life of a young woman who has become one of the victims of the nefarious Salem witch hunts. Her presentation is poised and engaging, and her scholarship is impressive. That makes no dent whatsoever on Mrs. Tingle, who skewers Leigh Ann for what she holds to be the misuse of the word "irony."
Clearly, Leigh Ann is going to have to shine extra brightly on the final exam if she is to land that all-important A. In the high school gym she's offered a copy of that exam by the well-meaning but lazy Luke (Barry Watson). She turns it down but is unknowingly carrying it with her just as Mrs. Tingle walks in. Also present is Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan), Leigh Ann's best friend and Luke's would-be girlfriend.
With all three sure to be expelled, Jo Lynn and Luke decide that they must go to Mrs. Tingle's spacious Victorian residence, along with Leigh Ann, and at the very least persuade her of Leigh Ann's innocence. A swiftly orchestrated series of mishaps lands the predictably unyielding Mrs. Tingle a hostage in her own home. Being tied down in her own bed doesn't stop her from attempting to play the kids against one another, and tension builds as to how this drastic turn of events will play out. However, her captors learn just enough about Mrs. Tingle to allow us to draw our own conclusions as to why she has become so intent on wrecking the life of so promising a student as Leigh Ann.
Writer of "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (and creator of TV's "Dawson Creek" in which Holmes stars), Williamson has a true gift in creating believable, likable young people and throwing them in scary situations set off with humor. He's not afraid to present teenagers as intelligent achievers, and in regard to Jo Lynn and Luke, he shows them to be smarter and more resourceful than adults seem to realize.
"Teaching Mrs. Tingle" reveals Williamson not only to be as accomplished a director as he is a writer but also his willingness to move beyond horror to psychological suspense. From as distinguished an actress as Mirren we expect the wit and panache she brings to the pitiless Mrs. Tingle; the pleasant surprise is that her young co-stars--particularly Holmes and Coughlan--hold their own in her company. Grandsboro High teachers and staffers are smartly played by Jeffrey Tambor, Michael McKean, Molly Ringwald and Vivica A. Fox. "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" looks great, with a fine, old Pasadena residence serving as Mrs. Tingle's house, and it's lots of fun--even if your high school years still haunt you.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle, 1999. PG-13, for thematic content, violence, sexuality, language and some teen drinking. A Dimension Films presentation of a Konrad Pictures/Interscope Communications production. Writer-director Kevin Williamson. Producer Cathy Konrad. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Cary Granat; Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Erica Huggins. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor Debra Neil-Fisher. Music John Frizzell. Costumes Susie DeSanto. Production designer Naomi Shohan. Art director David Lazan. Set decorator Daniel L. May. Set designers Lauren Cory, Scott P. Murphy. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Helen Mirren as Mrs. Tingle. Katie Holmes as Leigh Ann. Barry Watson as Luke. Marisa Coughlan as Jo Lynn.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun