A brutally honest, surrealistic look at American public education
The Votive Pit serves up a brutally honest, surrealistic look at American public education from the point of view of the system's front line warriors, the teachers. They are an eclectic mix an extremely eclectic mix of individuals, some of them tip-toeing on the brink of madness. Besieged on all sides by unruly students, patronizing and unhelpful administrators, unhappy parents, and of course the capricious whims of lawmakers, the eighth grade teachers of Odyssey Middle School are floundering in the deep end of the pool. This noxious cauldron has all kinds of nasty ingredients threatening to boil over: the increasingly disturbing behavior of students, teachers' inability to discipline them effectively, the problematic strictures put down by legislators who know nothing about the reality of public education, problematic input (or lack thereof) from parents, the contentious issue of religion in the schools, and ultimately the plague of school violence. With so much educational angst building up not to mention one character's increasingly surrealistic waking dreams it's inevitable that the whole thing ends up in bloodshed.
The film is open to a variety of interpretations, but I would say that the story is built around the character of Bald Man (Shamrock McShane), a science teacher who is striving to understand who and what he is, why he is there, and what education is supposed to be about. Bald Man is teetering on madness, and some of the later scenes seem to be, to some degree, products of his disturbed mind a fact which makes the second half of the film a little confusing. I found a second viewing to be a great help in understanding it all. Bald Man has gone several days without eating or sleeping, and he walks around with his broken doorknob, wondering if it is some sort of talisman. My favorite character by far, though, is Edna (Sara Morsey), a history teacher who is less than two weeks away from retirement. You get the sense that Edna was at one time a committed teacher who took pride in her job, but time and changing conditions within the school have transformed her into a bitter, unhappy woman who is far from shy about her complaints. According to Bald Man, Edna is "hanging in there like a rusty fishhook" (a line that's just too darn good not to quote). She longs for the days of old, when kids actually wanted to learn and administrators didn't have teachers running through patronizing, useless hoops. One half of the Cold War Ladies, she is joined by the younger but equally fed up language arts teacher, Gladys (Rachel Iannelli), who strikes me as something of a nineteenth century schoolmarm stuck in the 21st century classroom. "Professor" Dedalus (Scot Davis) is everything Gladys is not, a free thinker who has his own radical teaching style not only does he refuse to play by the book, he disdains the use of any textbook in his history classes. He also skips all the frivolous teachers' meetings and gets away with it, which particularly galls Edna. Rounding out the teaching faculty we meet here is Laurelei (Erica Corbett), a young and naive special education teacher who has not yet been around long enough to admit defeat in the face of educational dysfunctionality.
Representing the administration is Vice Principal Wendy (Julie Tidwell) unfortunately, we never get to see the oft-mentioned dean "Willie Wonka." Wendy is a young, annoyingly pleasant go-getter who foists nothing but "motivational" slogans and educational mantras (don't even get her started on her "pluses and deltas") on the faculty. This basically translates into a complete lack of support for the teachers, a fact Edna points out on many an occasion. You might think that the guidance counselor would be a voice of reason in this Votive Pit, but Dr. Jim Evergreen (Dirk Drake) isn't good at putting his book knowledge to practical use; he mainly just tries to avoid conflict.
The Votive Pit plays as great satire, brilliantly illuminating some of the absurdities and entrenched problems threatening to turn the public schools into the kind of nightmare world brought to life so provocatively here by director Mike McShane. The film plays on many levels, I should add, including a distinctly comical one dark comedy, obviously. Behind it all is an unfortunate truth, however, and that is what makes the film so compelling. I can't say I understand all of the aspects of the film, but the project as a whole makes its point exceedingly well. If you're not familiar with independent films, The Votive Pit may play rather strangely to you (the students of Odyssey are, for example, heard but almost never seen, and the Bald Man's surrealistic episodes sometimes make the line between fantasy and reality impossible to discern), but this film offers yet more evidence that the only originality and true creativity in American cinema is coming from the camp of independent filmmakers.
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