Streaming: Top Picks for Teacher-Themed Films and Returning Favorites

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During my time in school, I had a handful of teachers whom I greatly admired. There were even a couple who left a lasting impact on me. However, I doubt that a film about my experiences with them would be very exciting to watch. Teaching is a difficult and often unappreciated job. Even the most exceptional educators are rarely recognized with the type of glamorous recognition that is often portrayed in Hollywood films about classrooms. Yet, despite this, movies about inspirational teachers continue to be popular. It seems that filmmakers never tire of envisioning the idealized school days they wish they had experienced.

In The Holdovers, available on VOD last week, Paul Giamatti portrays a variation of the familiar character archetype: the grumpy, scholarly teacher with a hidden compassionate side. Alexander Payne’s offbeat comedy is praised for its relatable characters and settings. Giamatti’s old-fashioned classics professor, who may be out of touch but still has something to offer, is essentially an American interpretation of the outdated public schoolmaster in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. This role was beautifully portrayed by Michael Redgrave in 1951 (available on Internet Archive), and later by Albert Finney in a 1994 remake that is easily accessible for streaming.

The Holdovers, located in a 1970s New England prep school for boys, is reminiscent of the traditional and rigid establishment portrayed in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) that was disrupted by Robin Williams’ unconventional English teaching. Similar to Weir’s film, Payne’s work is beloved for its sentimental portrayal of intergenerational male bonding. However, I personally find both films a bit lacking in emotional impact. One film that I cannot resist, though, is the tear-jerking classic, Goodbye, Mr Chips. The story follows a dedicated Latin teacher who spends nearly six decades in the classroom, channeling his desire for parenthood into guiding and mentoring his students. The 1939 version, starring the perfectly-cast Robert Donat, is superior to the 1969 musical adaptation with Peter O’Toole, although both are worth watching.

18 months ago, I discussed Sidney Poitier’s death and how he excelled in both roles of the classroom dynamic. In the film Blackboard Jungle (1955), he played the rebellious student opposite Glenn Ford’s brave ex-navy teacher. Over a decade later, he portrayed a caring immigrant teacher who wins over a difficult group of students in the more sentimental film To Sir, With Love.

Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (2006).View image in fullscreen

The well-known tale of a dedicated teacher connecting with underprivileged teenagers in the inner city has been told in movies like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, but it can be made even more compelling. The highly praised 2006 film Half Nelson challenged traditional morals, with Ryan Gosling earning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a compassionate and inventive history teacher in Brooklyn struggling with a drug addiction. In French director Laurent Cantet’s outstanding 2008 Palme d’Or winning film The Class, the intense social discussions between a high school teacher in the suburbs of Paris and his restless, disadvantaged students are thoughtfully balanced and gripping.

Teacher Georges Lopez with young Letitia in Être et Avoir.View image in fullscreen

Cantet’s movie uses techniques from documentary filmmaking to create a sense of realism, even though the classroom is a perfect setting for nonfiction. Other films, such as Nicolas Philibert’s Être et Avoir (2002) and Mr Bachmann and His Class (2021), showcase the power of the classroom as a location for storytelling. These films explore the interactions between students from different cultural backgrounds. Frank Ripploh’s 1981 film, Taxi zum Klo, which was released by Peccadillo Pictures, provides a candid and humorous look at the life of a gay primary school teacher as he balances his personal and professional lives. This film was ahead of its time in its portrayal of LGBTQ issues in the education system. Similarly, the 1978 British independent film, Nighthawks, also tackles the challenges faced by a gay teacher in confronting his students’ prejudices.

Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in the ‘deliciously lurid’ Notes on a Scandal (2007).

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What about incompetent teachers? In his best movie, Election (1999), Payne presented a less admirable portrayal of the profession. The film depicts a chaotic battle of determination between Matthew Broderick’s small-town civics teacher and Reese Witherspoon’s fearless teenage overachiever. However, compared to Cate Blanchett’s manipulative classroom seducer and Judi Dench’s malicious senior schoolteacher in the 2007 provocative drama Notes on a Scandal, Broderick’s character would win the “teacher of the year” award. In the lesser-known film The Kindergarten Teacher (2018), Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a remarkable performance in a more ambiguous role as a devoted and responsible educator. But her motives for pushing a seemingly gifted child in her preschool class towards poetry remain unclear – is it for his benefit or hers?

All titles can be rented on various platforms unless otherwise specified.


“Additionally, there are new releases available on various streaming services.”

Showing Up

In 2022, Kelly Reichardt’s amusing and subtly humorous film about the struggles of creativity debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Surprisingly, it did not have a theatrical release in the UK, despite being just as lighthearted and approachable as the director’s previous works. The film features an exceptional performance by Michelle Williams as a struggling sculptor, and a hilariously witty Hong Chau as her landlord and artistic adversary.

Michelle Williams in Showing Up.View image in fullscreen


It’s surprising that Bafta did not include this powerful and provocative queer revenge thriller, created by first-time filmmakers Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, in their nominations for Best British Debut. The film is elevated by stellar performances from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as a drag queen recovering from a hate crime and George MacKay as his former bully turned unexpected romantic interest.

The Royal Hotel
Kitty Green’s taut, incrementally terrifying thriller finds inspired tension in an everyday premise, as two young, female Canadian backpackers take a bartending job in a remote Australian mining town, and soon find the sweaty patriarchy closing in on them.

(New Wave)
Mexican director Lila Avilés improves on her already impressive The Chambermaid with this bustlingly inhabited, emotionally febrile family tragedy, steering a young girl through a day’s party preparations for her terminally ill father. The payoff cuts your heart in two.


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