Dangerous Minds (1995)
Release Date: August 11th, 1995 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John N. Smith Actors: Michelle Pfeiffer, George Dzundza, Courtney B. Vance, Robin Bartlett, Beatrice Winde, John Neville, Lorraine Toussaint, Renoly Santiago, Wade Dominguez, Bruklin Harris, Marcello Thedford, Roberto Alvarez, Marisela Gonzales, Toni Nichelle Buzhardt
hrough friend Hal Griffith (George Dzundza), former marine Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) meets with Assistant Principal Carla Nichols (Robin Bartlett) at Parkmont High School for a potential teaching position. Since an academy teacher left some time ago, the school has been in dire need of a full-time replacement – and so Louanne is essentially hired on the spot. But the “academy” job is highly specialized – putting the newcomer in charge of a particularly rowdy group of underachievers.
She may be inexperienced when it comes to teaching, but she’s no stranger to tough situations. Insulted and dubbed “White Bread,” Johnson is treated to a rather unfriendly initiation. “Who are these kids? Rejects from hell?” Unfortunately, Griffith doesn’t offer much advice; if she can’t get their attention and demand some respect, she might as well quit. But Johnson isn’t one to give up so easily. The solution is to find a way to connect to youths who have always been neglected. And so she starts with a few karate moves.
It’s difficult for “Dangerous Minds” to avoid comparison to “The Substitute” (or “Only the Strong,” itself a derivation), with the similar premise and the military training of the fish-out-of-water instructor. She’s far less intimidating than Tom Berenger, not only in stature but also in her mode of educating, though her plight is less action-oriented and more grounded in a genuine hope for reform. Motivation to learn is almost nonexistent; a lack of paper and art supplies doesn’t help; and the need for an angle or a gimmick to get the students to care is crucial yet saddening. Rather than combating the evils that surround the kids, Johnson hopes to understand the cycle of abuse and poverty that seemingly condemns her pupils to lives of mediocrity and crime. One of her prime targets is Emilio (Wade Dominguez), an irredeemable thug who holds the key to her success – if she can get him to listen, everyone else will follow suit.
“If you lose your sense of humor, it’s over.” The problem with the film is that it’s tough to sympathize with this lot of miscreants – and it’s also challenging to believe their slow but certain decision to alter perspectives and to give in to possible potentials. Fortunately, Pfeiffer is convincing enough as a formidable source of persuasion, and there’s enough familial drama with the characters to evoke intermittent emotions. The theme of hopelessness in an unforgiving environment of psychological oppression is also absorbing – given enough gravity to keep up audience interest. The title “Dangerous Minds” is equally as potent (the autobiographical book is cleverly titled, too: “My Posse Don’t Do Homework”), imparting a multilayered notion of incompatible progressiveness or a fragility toward the harshest of realities – or the idea that failure to save everyone from their anticipated paths is simply too soul-crushing to conquer. In the end, the film is able to overcome its faults through an uplifting finale; it may be formulaic, but the inspirational model is entirely effective.
– Mike Massie