A Look Back: Teaching Mrs. Tingle

In the O’Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two men kidnap the young son of a wealthy man, only to a) soon can’t wait to return him, and b) find that the father is less than eager for this prospect. I mention this because this is often the template used in ransom movies – where the balance of power fluctuates between the kidnapper and the captive. Obviously otherwise, there would be no cinematic tension. From a truly terrible indie film called “SFW” to last year’s “Money Monster,” there are multiple ways a hostage can strike back. In “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” a nineties film, director Kevin (Dawson’s Creek) Williamson answers two important questions: a) How far would a “good girl” go to become high school valedictorian, and b) which Hollywood actress is more than capable of out-acting three photogenic teens while spending most of the movie tied to a bed? Answers: a) Kill one’s horrible history teacher, and b) Helen Mirren.

In the movie, Katie Holmes plays the daughter of a blue-collar single mom, who has perhaps the worst last week of high school in cinematic history ever (unless you count Molly Ringwald getting dumped by Andrew McCarthy in “Pretty in Pink”). However, by all rights, it shouldn’t be – she’s just completed her final project for Helen’s class, and is set to become valedictorian which will presumably lead to a spot at a college far away from her hometown. The project is – drumroll please – a hand-sewn fictional diary of a young girl at the time of the Salem Witch Trials written with homemade elderberry ink and crafted out of personally deer-tanned leather. (Just kidding, but not that much.) Not only does Katie make the whole thing herself, compare it to the projects of her best friend, Marisa Coughlan, who dresses up as Jackie O to deliver a monologue that’s long on passion but weak on facts, or her quasi-boyfriend Barry Watson who brings in a rock (yes, really). (Someone else brings in a longbow, which will play a role later on.) Unsurprisingly, Helen makes short work of such projects, but she also rolls her eyes at Katie’s. It’s baffling in the beginning why Helen has it in for her, but perhaps it’s because Katie herself is something of a victim – or she misuses the term “irony” (though that would be her English teacher’s fault). Or simply that the film needs a villain.

Fast forward a few periods, and we have Helen interrupting the trio in the school gym – the other two have procured the final in advance, but it’s Katie who gets caught holding it red-handed. This means that her chief rival, the uber-focused Liz Stauber, is now a shoo-in to become valedictorian, and Katie’s future is over – however, she gives into the pressure of her friends and pays a visit to Helen that night to try and resolve things. This leads to the aforementioned situation of Helen tied to her bed, while the trio tries to figure out how to avoid assault charges. Meanwhile at school, the principal (Michael McKean) rejoices (Helen knows his dirty little secret – he’s in AA), and so does Molly Ringwald (as a fellow teacher). Needless to say, the students are also ecstatic.

As time passes, Helen plays the trio like a violin – with the added complication of the school coach (Jeffrey Tambor), who turns out to be her love interest, paying a visit (sexually-active middle-aged people are always amusing, especially when they’re authority figures). Eventually, things are resolved in Katie’s favor, and Michael gets to utter the words to Helen that he’s longed for twenty years: “You’re fired.” And Katie at last uses the word “irony” correctly. Her English teacher would be proud.

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