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‘Ron Clark’: feeling good in Harlem

Times Staff Writer

The TNT original movie “The Ron Clark Story,” sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, wears its heart on the sleeves of Matthew Perry, who has never found that trusty deadpan smirk of his less useful.

Here he plays Ron Clark, the one-man version of No Child Left Behind, giving up a North Carolina elementary school job to heed a calling in the New York City public school system.

The real Clark has gone on to become a bestselling author and Oprah media friend. “The Essential 55" is the book that lays out Clark’s rules for earning the trust and respect of kids, including those who have been shown little reason to trust or respect the world. He’s now set to open a state-of-the-art school in Atlanta, the Ron Clark Academy, for “low-wealth” fifth- through eighth-graders.

All of which makes him an ideal TNT hero -- a populist with serious stick-to-itiveness. And earnestness in the inner city, in a “feel-good” premise, proves not to be too much of a drag on Perry (who’s a board member at Clark’s school).

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His presence alone gives the movie a sense of occasion. What he conveys is Clark’s well-meaning, rube-ish exterior -- the personality traits that disguise the inexhaustible core. “We are a family” is his Rule No. 1. By this he means to open up the relationship in the classroom beyond the Pavlovian sound of a bell.

“I teach you and you teach me,” he asserts. “And together we learn to love to learn.”

“Is he for real?” is not just the students’ question; it’s the audience’s as well. Any number of mainstream movies and/or TV shows will tell you straight-up sincerity won’t win out in the classroom or the teachers lounge; you have to be a comedian.

“The Ron Clark Story,” though, posits a person who succeeds in this tough environment through sheer mental elbow grease; no matter how much the kids act out -- defiling his car, his classroom -- Clark eventually makes it clear that he won’t stop caring. Or dreaming up visual aids. Or showing up in their lives outside the school.

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It’s his way of acting out -- by being a white guy in a Harlem classroom putting up signs that say, “Dream Big!” He gets the students to achieve with a mix of tough-love rules and unpredictability, but mostly because, finally, he’s a constant presence, unable to be pushed away.

There’s something Pollyanna in that -- plenty of teachers stick it out, gamely, without getting a movie made about them. (For a truly layered portrayal of what teachers face in urban schools, watch this coming season of HBO’s “The Wire.”)

In the movie, the students drive Clark to a case of walking pneumonia, which he defeats by videotaping his lessons from home. By then the kids -- whose conscience is mainly filtered through 12-year-old Shameika (Hannah Hodson) -- have already shaped up themselves.

The breakthrough seems to have coincided with the day Clark offered to drink a small carton of chocolate milk every 15 seconds if the kids would sit quietly and let him teach grammar.

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But there really isn’t an “aha” moment here. Director Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God,” “Dance With Me” ) and the writers shoehorn in a love story, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I totally bought that the beautiful starving waitress/actress would finally come to her senses and dump the actor boyfriend for Ron Clark. He’s so good with kids.

*

‘The Ron Clark Story’

Where: TNT

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When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for strong language)


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