2001: A Film Odyssey – Summer School (1987)

Every era has its creations, some heralded as masterpieces, others declared to be wretched waste. Then comes the next era, the next generation to look back at what came before and ask – what the fuck were they thinking? And in this vein I’m here to embark on this odyssey of entertainment, watching films ranging from summer blockbusters to cult classics, trying to figure out what holds up and what should be left to be consumed by the sands of time.

We are at the beginning of our Summer Films theme week, what better film than a film about summer which was released in the middle of summer? Summer School is a film where the gym (PE) teacher Freddy Shoop (played by Mark Harmon) is blackmailed into teaching a class of misfits remedial English and if they don’t all pass he loses his job.

The main thing that this movie has going for it is its characters and the connections between them. First of all, our protagonist Shoop is the very typical lovable scoundrel archetype, charming and unorthodox he even has a hot, younger (sort of) girlfriend at the start of the film (who’s seemingly forgotten about when the Kirstie Alley’s character enters the fold). On top of that, he has a lovable and loyal dog called Wondermutt. He’s not exactly the most intelligent character but has the ability to entertain the kids and connect with them on a personal level. For the other adults in the movie, there’s Kirstie Alley, as another teacher in the school and Shoop’s love interest. Alley does a great job in this movie, managing to be both strong and gentle in her portrayal of the character and there’s an enormous amount of chemistry between her and Harmon. From the start of the movie, they click so well and their connection feels organic, even if the movie does feel like it falls into the annoying trope of “female target says no a thousand times until she eventually says yes”. Then we have our third antagonist, VP Phil Gills (played by Robin Thomas) who serves to be our sleazy antagonist, with Thomas playing him in a way in which he’s very easy to hate, which works well for this movie. Whilst their performances are great, the characters don’t feel particularly novel, they feel like characters I’ve seen over and over before – a theme which is recurrent throughout this film.

The cookie-cutter nature of these characters continues into the kids. Dean Cameron and Ken Oldant play Dave and Chainsaw, the typical stoner/alcoholic duo who basically share a brain, the main distinguishing factor for these characters is their obsession with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At points their jokes, pranks using gory props and obsession with the beautiful foreign exchange student is hilarious but for so much of the movie, they’re just super obnoxious and unfunny.

Courtney Thorne-Smith plays Pam, the pretty student who has the hots for their teacher, yet again she’s not terrible, but still little more than her cliché.

Then we have Richard Steven Horvitz playing Alan, a socially awkward kid from a smart family who somehow managed to flop English and end up in the class. His performance manages to make this nerdiness into something that’s incredibly endearing, and when he finally speaks out you end up feeling proud of him.

The character of Rhonda is played by Shawnee Smith, she’s a teenage mother and doesn’t really have much to her character outside of that. Her pregnancy is handled respectfully but there are still some good gags around it.

Kevin (Patrick Labyorteux) is the dumb jock, kicked off the team for being too stupid. The good thing about this character is that although he’s a jock, he doesn’t feel like a dick head. In fact, Labyorteux is incredibly endearing throughout the movie, especially in his relationship with Rhonda. And of course, my glowing positivity is in now way connected to how Patrick Labyorteaux was (and still is) incredibly easy on the eyes. Though, like Rhonda, he has very little to do in the movie.

Denise Green plays Kelly, a character that can be best described as – the sassy black one. She has some interesting stuff in terms of the reasons why she’s in the class but at the end of the day, she’s still just the living embodiment of yet another trope.

Then there’s Anna-Maria (Fabiana Udenio), the beautiful exchange student who is just that, beautiful, clueless and only really serving as a subject of jokes and perversion. There’s something especially wrong in the way that Udenio is used as a sex object, especially considering how she’s meant to be a high schooler.

Finally, we come to Larry, the guy who’s always sleeping in class and has a thing for older women, his reasoning for sleepiness is pretty interesting. And he’s the only character who doesn’t really fall into a trope (that I can think of). But due to the sleepiness, he doesn’t do much during this film at all.

The fact that I can sum up all these characters in a sentence is part of the issue with this film, whilst everyone performs well and is incredibly funny with some pretty good chemistry between them, the characters (mostly) feel one-dimensional. There’s almost no uniqueness, I can’t point to any of these characters and say, this character is completely unique to “Summer School” when they all just feel like cookie-cutter characters. Every character just seems to serve their purpose within the context of the movie and have no ability to stand up on their own.

Summer School has a pretty run-of-the mill story, which whilst ending fun is ultimately predictable and well trodden ground. It touches on a whole load of themes like teenage pregnancy, learning difficulties, teacher-student romance and teen drug abuse but it never really seems to delve into any of them. They just seem to be brought up quickly and either skimmed past or addressed in an incredibly superficial and sanitary way. There’s no addressing how teen pregnancy really affects Rhonda, or how much drinking screws up Dave and Chainsaw. Nothing seems to have any real weight and every conflict can be solved easily with no real negative repercussions for anyone involved. So whilst the movie is undoubtedly fun, with funny jokes and cheery music and great performances it has no depth. Ultimately ending up as a fun but forgettable ride.

Does it hold up?

Aside from the one dumb gay joke, this film still remains funny in 2017, though the problems with tropes have only become more apparent with age. So go watch it if you want a fun 90 minutes that you’ll probably forget about pretty soon.

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