Thanks to films like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, the "inspirational teacher" movie genre has become one of Hollywood's most predictable formulas. The Providence Effect proves that educational documentaries can succumb to clichés just as easily.
Director Rollin Binzer presents the remarkable achievement of Providence St. Mel, a K-12 school on Chicago's West Side. For decades, the school has taken impoverished students and turned them into college material, with 100 percent of the graduating seniors accepted to college. Founder and former Principal Paul Adams III makes an ingratiating, no-nonsense spokesman for the school. In less than three decades, Adams went from being blacklisted from the Alabama educational system for participating in the Civil Rights Movement to being praised by then-President Ronald Reagan for Providence's success rate.
Adams extols the Providence approach to teaching, but the specifics come across as both vague and obvious: Employ competent, passionate teachers; get the students' attention; and enforce discipline and accountability among young people and faculty alike. Perhaps a documentary that set up a sharper contrast between the institutional sclerosis of some public schools could have had a stronger punch. One of the documentary's final titles says, "All profits from this film will be reinvested in education and the Providence Schools." That could explain why the film takes excessive pains to avoid offending anyone, and reserves its harsh words only for "poverty" and unspecified gang-bangers.
The most charged scene comes when the school's current principal makes an unannounced visit to a classroom and busts a student for – gasp! – doing her Spanish homework in math class. Next to Adams, the most memorable personality is probably the high-strung algebra teacher, who practically barks at his students. For the most part, though, The Providence Effect presents clearly dedicated educators and alumni who, in interviews, primarily speak in the mushy language of positivity and uplift.
Granted, the student choir sings a lovely interlude, and the camera clearly loves the little ones, but most audiences will fidget through montages of kindergarten graduations and science fair award ceremonies. Apart from impoverished street scenes, we see little of the different lives of any actual students. A narrower focus on teachers or students would have reaped dividends: Hoop Dreams followed the college basketball careers of two inner-city students and became arguably the best documentary of the 1990s.
The Providence Effect makes an increasingly unwelcome refrain of the school's mission statement – "We believe that one must earn the right to dream," etc. – culminating with a sappy musical version. Clearly the mission contributes to the school's goals and environment, so critiquing its use in the movie shouldn't be mistaken for slamming the school itself. It's an unfortunate irony that a nonfiction film about bettering education should be so soporific and platitudinous. Viewers will be tempted to pass notes in class.
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