Dangerous Minds (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the movies, like in real life, it isn't enough just to have a heart in the right place. Good intentions are nice, but they need to be backed up by an intelligent script telling an involving story. In the case of Dangerous Minds, we get an idealized version of inner city life, where, though problems may require more than the wave of a magic wand to remove, the solutions still seem too facile.

Dangerous Minds is based on a true story (My Posse Don't Do Homework, written by Louanne Johnson), but never has the Hollywood sheen been more apparent. With master crowd-pleasers Don Smith and Jerry Bruckheimer behind the production, there is never any question that this movie will pander to the least common denominator. Drama is pretty much by-the-numbers, tragedy is shallow, and the resolution is expectedly upbeat. Emotion and character interaction rarely ring true.

Ex-Marine Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) comes to a Palo Alto high school in search of a job as a student teacher. What she gets instead is a full-time position teaching English to a group of bright but "socially challenged" students that she quickly dubs as the "rejects from hell." When her first-day wardrobe choice and meek attitude earn her the nickname of "White Bread", she tries a radical approach: wear a leather jacket, curse as proficiently as the kids, and teach karate as a lead-in to English Lit. It works, and the students start to come around. Despite protestations from an uptight, by-the-book principal (Courtney B. Vance), lives are changed as a result of Louanne's unorthodox approach of using Bob Dylan lyrics to teach poetry and rewarding completed assignments with trips to amusement parks and dinners at fancy restaurants.

How much of Dangerous Minds ended up on the cutting room floor? A good question, and the answer may explain why this film is so erratic. Relationships that should have been better developed are left in an embryonic stage. The most notable is between Louanne and an especially difficult pupil, Emilio (Wade Dominguez). There's obviously something missing in the way these two learn to relate to each other. The result of this incomplete, hit-and-miss approach diminishes the impact of the film's central tragedy.

Dangerous Minds has a heart, but no soul. In the face of hard-hitting pictures like Kids and Teen Dreams, it's difficult not to see this movie as trivializing serious issues. The seams in the script show a little too clearly, and the heavy-handed attempts at audience manipulation stand out. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a solid performance, as do a number of the young actors playing Louanne's students, but Dangerous Minds is in desperate need of more than good acting. It demands substance rather than the filler that the film makers thought would make an acceptable substitute.

Dangerous Minds (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1995-08-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1