Cheetos, Candy, and the Light: Dangerous Minds at 25

Continuing the theme of back to school from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about how classrooms won’t look or feel the same this year. And classrooms now also include the living rooms, kitchen tables, or dens of American households, as so many of us will be working from home and overseeing our children’s remote, online learning. God help us.

God in this case of course being Michelle Pfeiffer, who once played a teacher to great effect in a movie that became a surprise hit in theaters twenty-five years ago this week. Based on the real LouAnne Johnson’s bestselling book My Posse Don’t Do Homework, Dangerous Minds opened on August 11, 1995. I’m not sure much was expected from this film, but I remember it being one of the bigger pop culture moments of that year, thanks in part to the ubiquitous music video for Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” featuring Michelle, her leather jacket, and her intense glare into the camera. If you lived through the ’90s, then chances are good that Michelle teaching her students karate or the “Dylan-Dylan Contest” are ingrained in your mind forever. While it’s rarely mentioned alongside her best films, for me it’s always been the kind of movie that I had to watch if I flipped by it on cable. I think this is because, despite how treacly the script can be, and despite the white savior narrative, it still scratches that big studio melodrama itch we all get from time to time. It’s manipulative in the ways that so many 1990s dramas were, like another one I love from this period, the wildly entertaining A Time to Kill. Sometimes, like right now as schools struggle to figure out how to educate children during a dangerous pandemic, an emotionally overwrought Hollywood drama about education in American schools is just the chicken soup for the soul I need.

The direction by John N. Smith is actually quite compelling, as are the performances by most of the actors playing LouAnne’s students. Bruklin Harris as Callie and Renoly Santiago as Raoul are particularly memorable. And, of course, there’s Michelle. Again, not many Pfeiffer fans seem to think all that highly of her work in this one, but I do. It’s not on the level of her best work, certainly, and she’s operating from a deficit with a mediocre script, at best. But she’s still dynamic and engaging throughout. Fun trivia: she was pregnant with son John Henry during filming, which might explain LouAnne’s constant cravings for Cheetos and candy bars.

Some of the lines she has to deliver that have not aged well, like “There are no victims in this classroom,” yet she still manages to convey LouAnne’s real depth of feeling for her students. And while some of the smaller notes she brings to the role might seem superfluous, I delight in LouAnne’s junk food addiction, her Southern accent (even though the real LouAnne was from Pennsylvania), and her sweet friendship with the man who got her the job, old friend and fellow teacher Hal Griffith, played beautifully by George Dzundza (The Deer Hunter). Their scene at the bar commiserating over nachos and beer feels natural and organic, thanks to the actors’ effortless chemistry. It’s all about little moments, like when we learn that Hal was LouAnne’s ex-husband’s best friend – “‘was’ being the operative word,” as Hal reminds LouAnne. She is genuinely touched, smiles, and plants a soft kiss of thanks on his shoulder. It works so well as a brief, but insightful window into their shared history as friends.

Another scene I can’t help but love is when LouAnne takes Raoul out to dinner at a swanky restaurant, as a prize for having won her class poetry contest. Pfeiffer brought in an uncredited Elaine May to flesh out LouAnne more, possibly because May had just worked the same magic for Michelle’s character Laura Alden in the previous year’s Wolf. While we don’t know exactly what May added to Dangerous Minds, it seems likely she played a part in the dialogue between LouAnne and Raoul in the dinner scene. It positively crackles with May’s trademark wit and intelligence, and Michelle acts the hell of her moments in this scene, all while chomping down on her chicken dinner. Again, it’s natural and organic, with the young Santiago more than holding his own with Pfeiffer.

I don’t love that LouAnne’s boss is a black man who doesn’t seem to care at all about his largely black and Latino students. I don’t love that one of those kids is murdered to propel the story into it’s happy conclusion. Dangerous Minds is not a perfect film, then, but since when do we require perfection out of our films? Wait, I know the answer to that: since Twitter, that’s when. Blergh. So, sure, the film might be a sensationalized, simplified take on Johnson’s own experiences as a teacher of “at risk” youth, but I love the bond that forms between LouAnne and her students – thanks to the chemistry between Pfeiffer and the young actors. Together, teacher and students find in each other some light in the darkness. The kids in her classroom were labeled “lost causes” by almost everyone, from administrators to teachers to parents. LouAnne, still recovering from the trauma of an abusive marriage and an abortion, puts her all into helping these kids succeed. She stumbles along the way and gets harshly called out for it on more than occasion. She’s not perfect, and neither is the film. But it’s for these imperfections, and the moments when the film really does click, that I’ve always found it a flawed but highly watchable experience.

Here’s to twenty-five more years of Cheetos, candy, and the light.

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