When I was in high school, there was perhaps no scarier thing out there than the possibility of having to attend summer school. It probably could’ve made a good premise for a horror movies. That’s not the route Hollywood chose to go, though. Instead, we got a high school comedy directed by a veteran of many classic TV shows, Carl Reiner. From 1987, it’s “Summer School.”
The film opens on the last day of school as a strange bunch of southern California high school students receive notices that they have failed an important English test they took earlier in the year. Unfortunately, they need to pass the test to proceed in school, which means they must retake it after spending their vacation in summer school. However, a problem soon arises when the teacher assigned to summer school (played by Reiner) wins the lottery and promptly quits. Vice Principal Philip Gills (Robin Thomas) only has a few minutes to find a replacement. When all the other teachers quickly scurry away, the only choice is P.E. teacher Freddie Shoop (Mark Harmon). Shoop only got into teaching so he could get his summers off. Threatened with the possibility of not being granted tenure, Shoop is forced to abandon plans to go to Hawaii with his girlfriend and teach the remedial English class.
Shoop’s students are not exactly honor roll material. There’s Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), a surfer girl who longs to hit the waves…Alan Eakian (Richard Steven Horvitz), who comes from a long-line of straight A students but is somehow struggling…Denise (Kelly Jo Minter), an African-American girl hiding the fact that she is dyslexic…Larry (Ken Olandt), who spends all day sleeping…Kevin (Patrick Labyorteaux), a football player kicked off the team for bad grades…Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), who’s grades have slipped after getting pregnant…and the horror movie obsessed pair Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley). Later they a joined by a foreign exchange student, Anna Maria (Fabiana Udenio), there to brush up on her English before the school year starts. It’s a pretty hopeless bunch. At least Freddie is pleased with having a classroom right next door to an attractive new teacher, Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley).
Shoop’s first few days are a disaster. The class plays pranks on him and have no trouble sneaking out of class completely. Eventually, though, Shoop hits on the idea of taking some field trips with the class. This includes trips to the amusement park, go-cart track, and petting zoo. Oh, and of course, the beach…after Chainsaw and Dave insist that they need to see Anna Maria in a bikini.
When Gills, who, by the way, is dating Robin, finds out about all this, he quickly puts the field trips to a stop. Shoop has no choice but to get his students to pass the test, or he loses his job. The students are still unmotivated, however. That is, until they hit upon a deal where Shoop grants the students favors in exchange for them actually studying. This includes teaching Denise how to drive, being Rhonda’s lamaze coach, and providing chauffeur service for Chainsaw and Dave. This all begins to backfire on Shoop when Pam, who has become infatuated with her teacher, asks to move in to his beachfront house until she can find a new place to live. More trouble comes when he covers for Chainsaw and Dave who are caught drinking vodka on the beach and ends up in prison. In the end though, he gets the students to focus as the big test looms.
This is just a fun movie, pure and simple. It goes a long way on having a bunch of characters that just make you smile. Mark Harmon does a great job as Freddie Shoop. He’s such a laid back guy…I mean he brings his dog with him to school! Who would’nt have wanted Freddie Shoop for a gym teacher? Come on! The kids in the class may all have issues, but they are likeable characters and together they create some very funny moments. None more so, though, than Chainsaw and Dave. They may not be as well-remembered as other duos, but in my book they are much funnier than the likes of Bill & Ted or even Wayne & Garth. Their obsession with creating horror movie gore effects provides two of the film’s funniest moments. In one scene, they stage a killer bunny attack at the petting zoo…but that’s nothing compared to when they get the whole class involved in scaring away a substitute teacher with their “Dawn of the Dead” like creations.
I literally watched this film dozens of times when I was in high school. I know a big part of that was the Chainsaw and Dave characters, but I think on an unconscious level I was also drawn to something else. This film has more than it’s fair share of crush-inducing young actresses. First there’s Courtney Thorne-Smith, so nasty as the mean girl in “Lucas” but sweet here, and also quite funny in the scene where she puts on a loving housewife act as she cooks dinner for Shoop. There’s also Shawnee Smith, very pregnant but very adorable as Rhonda. Then there’s Fabiana Udenio (the future Alotta Fagina from Austin Powers) as Anna Maria. When Chainsaw and Dave’s jaws drop to the ground when they first see her in a bikini, that’s not acting folks. Lastly, believe it or not, is Kirstie Alley, who in this post-Wrath of Khan pre-Cheers stage of her career was still quite cute. Looks aside, though, all four of these actresses manage both sweet and funny performances, not letting the boys have all the fun. Bottom line, all the primary characters in the film get a moment or two to shine, making the film more well-rounded comedically than some other films that feature a collection of goofy characters (yes “Police Academy,” I’m looking at you).
I’ve really got to hand it to Carl Reiner on this one. He’s got a clever script to work with and talented actors playing funny characters, which he wraps up with a mischievous approach and tops off with a playful early Danny Elfman score to boot. In other words: it feels like summer!