You should know about Front of the Class
It’s a beautiful Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that will capture your heart and provoke your mind: here’s why you should know about ‘Front of the Class.’
I should open this column with a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Hallmark TV-movies. In my past experience, I’ve found them to be flicks that beat me over the head with their intended message, while the actual film itself leaves something to be desired. I say that, however, to prove how great Front of the Class is; not only do I enjoy this movie, but I would venture to put it amongst my favorite films of all time. And it drives me just a little bit crazy when someone tells me they’ve never heard of it.
Originally aired in 2008 and based on the book of the same name, Front of the Class tells the true story of Brad Cohen (played perfectly by James Wolk, who went on to his breakout role in FOX’s Lone Star the next year), a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who was determined to become the supportive teacher he never had, no matter how much adversity was placed in his way. As strictly a piece of entertainment, it’s a good one. While there’s no doubt that Brad is going to succeed – this is still a Hallmark movie, after all – the flick holds the audience’s interest because it’s not about whether or not he becomes a teacher. It’s about how he is a remarkable person with, not in spite of, his Tourette’s. That’s something bigger than the usual Character A achieving Goal B.
The movie has a cast that handles the material with respect and doesn’t overdo it. It’s surprising to note that this was James Wolk’s first major role, because he certainly doesn’t act like it. He does a remarkable job of connecting the audience with Brad. He’s got the charisma and charm that Wolk would become known for in Lone Star and USA’s Political Animals, but he’s also adept when it comes to Brad’s frustrations and vulnerabilities. There’s a scene where Brad hits his lowest point, and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching, because Wolk has made us truly fall in love with this man, and we feel what he must feel at that moment. His portrayal of Brad’s tics and twitches comes off as something natural rather than consciously acted, and that also holds true for Dominic Scott Kay, who plays the younger Brad. They’re as spot on as you could ask for.
Patricia Heaton (The Middle), Treat Williams (White Collar) and Sarah Drew (Grey’s Anatomy) make up the supporting cast as Brad’s parents and girlfriend respectively, and they are all equally three-dimensional. They’re not just there to serve Brad’s story, but they all have parts to play and points of view as well. Unlike many flicks of this type, Front of the Class feels completely well-rounded.
It also doesn’t come off as preachy like many Hallmark TV-movies, which is ironic because the message it conveys is one that more people could use to hear. Speaking from experience, the common perception of disabled individuals is that our conditions, whether it’s Tourette’s or something else, are a problem to be overcome. While that’s oftentimes the case, it’s also not entirely true. One thing Brad Cohen’s story elucidates is that any difference – not just a disability – can also provide certain strengths, if we allow ourselves to look at them that way. Part of what makes Brad a great teacher is his Tourette’s, and what it’s taught him. He wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s a seemingly minor shift in thinking, but it can make a world of difference.
That brings me to the biggest reason that I wish more people would see Front of the Class. James Wolk is one of my favorite actors, and there are lots of inspirational movies in my collection, but what makes this tops in my book is that it gives an authentic portrayal of what it actually feels like to live with a disability every day. It’s easy to recount events, but it’s very hard to express the emotions we struggle with: the insecurities, the self-doubt, the determination. This movie does that. Every time I watch it, I can’t help but start crying, because I’ve been there. And the fact that Brad Cohen has been there gives me comfort in return. Front of the Class is a Hallmark movie that gets it right. It’s not only a great flick, but it’s a film that says so many things that need to be heard, no matter who you are.
Front of the Class is available on DVD and also occasionally airs on the Hallmark Movie Channel; check your local listings for upcoming showtimes. For more information on the real Brad Cohen, you can visit his website.