Thanks largely to the enduring popularity and influence of the British Office and its American counterpart, the past few years have produced a bevy of shows with a visual and comic vocabulary heavy on handheld camera, jittery editing, nervous laughter, awkward social interaction, and low-key character comedy. Unsurprisingly, this style of comedy is rapidly becoming nearly as clichéd as the staid, conventionally shot laughers that preceded it. Chalk is the latest heavily improvised mockumentary proudly traversing the tradition of The Office and Christopher Guest. It'd feel much fresher if it had been released even five years ago.
Chalk follows the travails of a group of neophyte teachers navigating the tricky waters of high school. Co-writer Chris Mass, one of a number of real-life teachers involved in the film, stars as an aggressive, self-absorbed educator unhealthily obsessed with winning Teacher Of The Year at any cost. Troy Schremmer plays an anxious, jittery teacher, queasily uncomfortable in his own skin, who stumbles into a strange semi-flirtation with Janelle Schremmer, a pushy gym teacher whom everyone assumes is gay due to her profession and boyish haircut.
Chalk mines nervous laughter from the gulf between teacher and student culture, and the contrast between how its simultaneously self-conscious and oblivious teachers see themselves, and how the rest of the world sees them. In one of the film's funniest sequences, students put teachers through a rigorous spelling bee on slang terms important to them. Co-writer/director Akel clearly understands and has enormous affection for his milieu and his subjects, but in the absence of strong protagonists or satisfying character arcs, his agreeably forgettable film seldom builds to anything more than scattered chuckles. The downside to the low-key spontaneity of this comedy style is an airy randomness that comes from prizing individual moments over a fully realized whole. Chalk pays homage to the kind of teachers students never forget, which makes it all the more perverse that it's so stubbornly, albeit affably, forgettable.