What to Watch: 8 Movies From the Sundance Film Festival Celebrating the Best Teachers

This appears to be a stage, with stage lights and artificial lights as stars in a night sky, above a sort of corral with a coil of rope hanging on one post. Inside is a woman in a black dress smiling at a young blond girl in a costume of some sort with red-and-white striped leggings.

Patricia Clarkson plays a gifted teacher and a young Elle Fanning portrays a student excited to be part of a school production of “Alice in Wonderland,” in the film “Phoebe in Wonderland.”

By Vanessa Zimmer

Everyone has a favorite teacher — the one who first recognized your artistic talent, perhaps, or gave you a little support when you needed it most. Maybe you’re extra lucky and can point to multiple teachers who helped mold you into the wonderful person you are today.

School is in session across the country, which got us thinking about the outstanding teachers in our lives. Who could possibly disagree that a classroom teacher can have a profound impact on students? 

The following examples of storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival include portrayals of dedicated, caring individuals who exercised their passion in teaching. Why, even just watching the admirable teachers in these films could improve your life!

Stand and Deliver (formerly Walking on Water) (1988 Sundance Film Festival) — Edward James Olmos earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of teacher Jaime Escalante, a real-life individual who inspired his unruly and disinterested inner-city students to learn calculus. His Los Angeles high school was rife with drugs and drop-outs, and in danger of losing accreditation, until this amazing individual with a quirky sense of humor walked through the doors. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Rock School (2005 Sundance Film Festival) — This Don Argott documentary brought to light Philadelphia’s Paul Green School of Rock Music, for students ages 9 to 17. “The school’s founder and ringleader, Paul Green, is an overgrown child himself,” wrote Lisa Viola in the Festival Film Guide. “A gifted musician in his youth, Green established his singular academy in hopes of raising the bar for other young and talented rockers. By tapping into his unbridled excitement for the music, he culls his students’ hidden potential.” Available on DVD.

Phoebe in Wonderland (2008 Sundance Film Festival) — Three cheers for the unconventional! Patricia Clarkson plays a gifted drama teacher who helps a 9-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) with  obsessive-compulsive disorder and behavior problems take part in the school play, Alice in Wonderland. Miss Dodger’s odd and impulsive personality ostracizes her from the other teachers, but she connects with young Phoebe — in the chaotic process helping the youngster interact with others. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Precious (2009 Sundance Film Festival) — Lee Daniels’ film won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and a Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival for its story of an abused, obese, and illiterate teen who has been impregnated for the second time by her father. At school, Miss Blu Rain (Paula Patton) notices the troubled Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and convinces her that she can escape her familial chains if she can learn to read and write. The film won two Oscars, including one for Mo’Nique as Precious’ abusive mother. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Monsieur Lazhar (2012 Sundance Film Festival) — A teacher in Montreal commits suicide one particularly harsh winter, sending the elementary school students into a tailspin. An Algerian immigrant, Bachir Lazhar, is hired to fill in. Lazhar brings his charismatic personality to the classroom to help the children despite the fact he is seeking political refuge and has experienced loss in his own life. “Mohamed Fellag as Lazhar delivers a performance full of charm, compassion, and humanity, allowing the story of a beloved teacher to breathe with wit and originality,” wrote Kim Yutani in the Festival Film Guide. “With [Canadian writer-director Phillippe] Falardeau’s gentle humor and elegant touch, Monsieur Lazhar tells a gorgeous story about a man who transcends his own grief and tragedy to help his young students process death and loss in their lives.The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Available on AMC+, Crackle, Fandor, Plex, Amazon Prime, Sundance Now, and Tubi.

CODA (2021 Sundance Film Festival) — In all the accolades for this multiple Oscar winner (and Grand Jury, Audience, and Directing awards, as well as the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast at the Festival), the role of the music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) hasn’t received much of the spotlight. Until now. Ruby, the only hearing member of her deaf family, likely would not have gone looking for a future outside her family without the encouragement of Bernardo Villalobos, the genuine and enthusiastic choirmaster who discerns a special quality in Ruby’s voice. He urges her to pursue her dream at music school. Available on Apple TV.

Try Harder! (2021 Sundance Film Festival) — Tucked into this documentary about the incredible pressure for students at one of the United States’ top high schools to get into an elite university is the voice of reason: a physics teacher who counsels a student and parent that the best college isn’t necessarily an Ivy school, but one that matches the student’s interests. Available on Hulu.

These two films aren’t so much about individual teachers, but about schools re-imagined by innovative educators. (Wouldn’t it be great if the directors revisited these schools for an update?)

Most Likely to Succeed (2015 Sundance Film Festival) — Are American schools woefully out of date? Our present system goes back to the Industrial Age, changing little despite advancing technology that values collaboration and critical thinking over rote-based learning imposed by drill-sergeant teachers. This documentary advocates a wholesale change, like that in San Diego’s High Tech High, where, for example, standardized tests are replaced with individualized student projects. Available for rent on Amazon Prime.

The Bad Kids (2016 Sundance Film Festival) — The American school system gets another questioning lens in this documentary examining a high school in the Mojave Desert — “where educators believe empathy, life skills, and the constancy of a caring adult are the differences that will give at-risk students command of their fates,” according to the Festival Film Guide. Principal Vonda Viland knows each student’s challenges (poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction, and teen parenting, among them) and responds with compassion and realistic expectations. As a result, the school’s graduation rate rose dramatically. The Festival awarded the film a Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking. Available on Peacock and Tubi.

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