Screenplay by Jeff Franklin
Story by Jeff Franklin, Stuart Birnbaum, and David Dashev
Directed by Carl Reiner
At one point Summer School was a cable staple, but I first saw it as a lad probably in ’88 or ’89 during a Showtime free preview weekend on cable. You see, we had HBO and Cinemax, but not Showtime, which meant there was a huge chunk of films that we didn’t have the pleasure of watching a billion times. Summer School was one of those, but it was also popular enough it was used to entice people to sign up for Showtime, which we never did, but we did watch their free films. After that, I managed to miss it the hundreds of other times it played on the TBS/TNT/USA channels, until 27 years later when it was screened in an theater again.
Summer School was actually part of a Dean Cameron triple-feature that also saw Ski School and Rockula played at a Midnites for Maniacs event at the San Francisco New Mission Theater. Not only was there three Dean Cameron movies playing, but Dean Cameron himself was there to regale us with a few tales of his career and filming these pictures.
Summer School is both an artifact of the time and a harbinger of the future where school testing has become controversial. The kids here being unmotivated high school students who failed a required basic skills test they need to graduate and their teacher. Freddy Shoop is the gym teacher more interested in having fun and summer vacation than teaching, but he’s roped into the summer school gig because he’s up for tenure. His girlfriend goes off to Hawaii without him, and Mr. Shoop now has a room full of rambunctious kids and no desire to be a responsible adult. It’s fun seeing Marc Harmon as the beach bum teacher when he’s now best known for headlining NCIS for a bajillion years, especially since he fills the fun-having teacher role so easily.
No good 80s film is without a stuffed shirt villain, and the vice-principal Phil Gills (Robin Thomas) fills that role nicely, being a constant thorn in Shoop’s side while also dating his love interest, Robin (Kirstie Alley). He is satisfyingly slimy and provides a great foil for the hero and students while putting in a good, cheesy performance that only rarely slips into cartoonish territory.
The students are a mix from all walks of life. There are gorehounds Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave Frazier (Gary Riley), and both become immediately smitten with beautiful exchange student Anna-Maria Mazarelli (Fabiana Udenio). There is tough student Denise Green (Kelly Jo Minter); failing jock Kevin Winchester (Patrick Labyorteaux – who starred in JAG, the series Harmon’s NCIS was spun off from); the only failing student from a family of nerds, Alan Eakian (Richard Steven Horvitz); a distracted surfer girl, Pam House (heavily promoted on video covers now as she was played by Courtney Thorne-Smith); pregnant student Rhonda (Shawnee Smith); and the constantly asleep Larry Kazamias (Ken Olandt).
There is even a student who spends the whole film in the bathroom (played by Duane Davis), a joke that I remember more from watching it years ago than anything else that happens in the film. Most films would be too scared to have a joke wait that long for a payoff, but Summer School boldly marches ahead with it, and then keeps going with it!
Mr. Shoop at first has no intention of treating the job seriously, instead going on field trips to amusement parks and the beach. But soon a parent finds out and Shoop is threatened into treating class seriously. The kids don’t want to go along until they work out a deal that is basically bribing the kids with favors in exchange for them trying to learn. And it’s effective, as we move through the summer and the students begin to improve their English while Mr. Shoop helps them with their troubles and helps them party down.
Of course things come to a head before the big test, with the vice-principal working to get Shoop fired. By this point Mr. Shoop has transformed from a carefree guy to an actual caring teacher, showing that even people who don’t want to grow up can transform when they get responsibilities. The students all get their own arcs, though the ones with less focus have understandably more simple stories.
At the risk of SPOILERing a 30 year old movie, the ending proves the point of the journey. Not all of the students pass the final test, but the absent principal is impressed because these problems students radically increase their scores, for the first time in their lives they have motivation to learn, and he correctly recognizes that that is the sign of a good teacher, not mindlessly teaching to a test. It supports the current criticism that school funding and teacher success is far too focused on scores of specific skills tests, a consensus that has grown enough that things are beginning to change to move away from the tests.
The most memorable scenes are when Chainsaw and Dave are doing their special effects gore thing, including a long and hilarious sequence as they successfully freak out a substitute teacher in an attempt to get Mr. Shoop back on the job. The students are a rowdy mix and pull stunts that there is no way would be included in the often threatened modern remake.
Seeing the film again decades later with a crowd was a great way to get reacquainted with the film, especially since my original watchings were when I was younger than the students, and now I can look back on the high school experience with nostalgia. Cameron let us know there is an alternate take of the beach scene where the exchange student does take off her top (and at that point both Chainsaw and Dave propose to her), and that was the day every executive decided to visit the set, which caused Fabiana Udenio to get uncomfortable with the whole thing and Carl Reiner had to smooth things over.
Overall, it was great seeing a film that was remarkably still relevant while being just edgy enough that any modern version would be neutered at the wrong parts. If anything, Summer School needs to be more of a cult movie, but it will continue to be an under-appreciated gem that you’ll showing up in movie lists by those in the know. Join them, won’t you?
Rated 7/10 (hiding, snoozing, hearing, shooping, driving, daydreaming, snoozing 2.0)
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