If not, you can always teach...

24th May 1996 at 01:00

Robin Buss on two films with radically different ideas about growing up. Glenn Holland, like Mr Chips (of GoodbyeI), Mr Crocker-Harris (of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version) and assorted other fictional beaks, is a man looking back on a lifetime in front of the blackboard. We meet him, in flashback, as he drives up to John F Kennedy High, in the year after the President's assassination, just as the school porch is getting its new name. Like so many before him, he has heard the call - and it said: "...if not, you can always teach." After a few years, he will pack it all in and compose music. Meanwhile, it's a matter of long holidays and muddling through, rehearsing the school orchestra in its excruciating attempts at Beethoven and teaching music appreciation from books.

So far, this too is all by the book and no one is likely to be surprised when, after six months of boring his students witless, Holland discovers that he has been doing something wrong; whereupon he starts doing everything right. However, in one or two ways, Mr Holland's Opus subverts our expectations: in details (it is one of the black students who cannot beat time on a drum, for example), and in the broad message: Holland's success as a teacher is bought at the cost of his own family's welfare, perhaps even more than his personal ambition. There are large doses of sentimentality in Stephen Herek's film, but it is truthful in some respects about teach-ing - except when it implies that 30 years at JFK High are likely to leave Mr Holland with no sign of ageing except a sprinkling of grey hair.

Quietly and elegantly played by Richard Dreyfuss, Holland has an attractive personality and a good sense of humour; but he must learn how to make both praise and criticism constructive, how to put his students' real needs first and how to help them overcome the fear of failure. And even when he succeeds, he is no saint, and we are not entirely sure that he has made the right choices. Perhaps he should have taken the kind of advice he gives one of his students, and refused that original compromise with his talent.

Some brief documentary inserts in Mr Holland's Opus mark the passage of time by evoking events in the world beyond school: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, President Richard Nixon's resignation. In Kids, on the other hand, there is no past, no future, and no wider world. The young teenage protagonists move around the streets and apartment buildings, motivated solely by their cravings for sex and drugs, and untroubled by parents or school. Not surprisingly, their intellectual development has suffered from this neglect: their speech is repetitive, drawing on a limited vocabulary, and their personalities are pre-adolescent. Boys and girls hang around in separate groups, discussing sex, but each with little understanding of the behaviour and needs of the other, and not even a hint that they might be acquiring a sense of values. Moral issues - those questions of should and ought that most teenagers debate in connection with the conduct of their peers or of characters in soap operas - never arise here. The only time we even see an example of group solidarity is when a boy picks a fight with a stranger and his friends rally round to beat the outsider unconscious. "Do you think we killed that guy?" one asks later, with curiosity rather than concern.

The plot, such as it is, involves its central character's attempt to seduce two virgins in one day, at the same time as one of his previous conquests is trying to track him down, having discovered that he has infected her with HIV. Kids offers itself as a picture of "how it really is", but in fact belongs to a quite familiar genre, which has long been concerned with shocking tales about teenage depravity: remember Blue Jeans (1959), where Carol Lynley had to visit a backstreet abortionist? That was the era of High School Hellcats, Juvenile Jungle and the rest, which played on the fears that civilised society was falling apart, culminating in Barry Shear's 1968 black comedy, Wild in the Streets, where the teenies really do take over the government.

Nowadays, instead of such stuff being mistaken for reality, the overriding fear seems to be that Larry Clark's film is exploitative and that its young actors might appeal to the wrong kind of adult audience. This change of attitude looks like progress. Perhaps we are starting to grow up.

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