School of Rock is a film that sounds, on paper, like a wafer-thin lark that fits snugly within the condescending subgenre of inspiring teacher films. However, depicted through Richard Linklater’s humanistic treatment of youth the film is something that’s equally irreverent and sincere. Unconcerned with patronizing lessons of uniting disparate groups, School of Rock instead attunes itself to the minute (if comically exaggerated) observations of that commonality slowly blossoming. Though it climaxes with a rousing performance, School of Rock works best when honing in on the face of a child brightening to new, freer possibilities afforded to them, or in the dawning sense of maturity slowly stirring in a buffoon.
Critically, Linklater’s film reverses the usual dynamic of these movies. Instead of a well-educated, impassioned educator coming to a run-down, all-but-abandoned school of impoverished and underserved kids, the students here attend a private-school, already set on a path to college by the fifth grade. The teacher, meanwhile, is a disheveled loser who cons his way into substitute teaching for a quick payday. The resulting arc thus does not concern a teacher trying to break through to the indifferent students, but a man child who must learn responsibility even as he instructs kids not to live lives preplanned by their parents.
Jack Black is expectedly over-the-top as Dewey, but his work is always genuine. Dewey’s plan to turn his musically gifted students into a rock band (to back his antics) allows Black to show off the enthusiastic side of the music snob seen in High Fidelity. Dewey hands out copies of Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love and Yes’ Fragile not to show off his classic rock bona fides but to eagerly spread the music he loves to others. Black never condescends to his young co-stars; the closest thing to one of those patronizing lines used to speak to kids on their level (think “Shakespeare was the original rapper!”) consists of comparing a cello to an electric bass with a groanworthy pun.
Dewey, far less intellectual or reflective than Linklater’s other Gen X characters, nevertheless fits in with the director’s previous slacker creations. Made back in 2003, School of Rock hides a clear understanding of the difference between Generation X and its millennial successors within its good-natured, ostensibly fluffy entertainment. The peripatetic musing of Linklater’s twenty-/thirtysomethings has been replaced by tensomethings who are already planning for college and a career.
Dewey’s desire to teach his students about rock thus becomes a subconscious wish to give Gen Y the same freedom he enjoys. That this freedom also comes with insecurity and the possibility of stagnation underscores Dewey’s naïveté, but the farther time gets away from School of Rock, the more energizing and inspiring its optimistic view of a grown man finding a purpose and kids rejecting their predestined ones becomes.