There is a short film on the DVD titled something like “Gym Class Horror Stories,” where many of the cast and crew of this film go back to those awful days of misery, pain, and sadism known as Physical Education. Of more than a dozen people interviewed, only one admitted to never having had any problems in gym class with a sadistic teacher. Even Billy Bob Thornton, whose dad was the basketball coach in his high school, said he dreaded PE. So I am forced to accept what I have a great deal of trouble believing, which is that the humiliation, degradation, and sometimes even physical abuse I suffered in junior high school is the norm, not the exception. I fear that at least 50% of children had to go through what I went through, and may even be going through it today … though the film also included a present-day gym teacher who disavows the practices of the past. (“Humiliation never taught anybody anything.”)
I had not one but two tormenters, Coach S and Coach E. Coach E was a hairy little hominid who enjoyed making little boys suffer. He was short and wide, football was his life, and he carried a Coke bottle with him at all times to spit tobacco juice into. Just the memory of that Coke bottle gives me the shivers. He hated fat kids, and he hated tall kids. My best friend, Calvin, was fat, and basically spent the whole period running laps after failing at some task set for him by Coach E. I was taller than E in the eighth grade, and clumsy, unable to hit a baseball or throw a football, so he enjoyed singling me out, too.
But the real killer, in retrospect, was Coach S. You could hate Coach E, his malevolence was right out there on the surface. But Coach S just wanted to help you. He wanted to make a better man out of you. He was buff, tanned, a perfect physical specimen; the girls melted when he walked down the hall in his spotless white Polo shirt and spotless, ironed and creased white shorts, socks, and sneakers. And he was always hurt when you failed at some impossible task yet again. You had let him down. You weren’t giving it that old team spirit. It took me years to figure that out what he had done to me. His “swimming lessons” are the reason I cannot swim, and am phobic about having my head underwater. And yes, I do still obsess about PE class, as I’ll bet a lot of people do. Near the end of this film, Mr. Woodcock, in the closest he ever comes to any empathy with a male, says something like “It was only a gym class.” That’s why Woodcock would never understand the harm he’s doing these boys, because of course it’s much more than a gym class, it’s Darwinian survival of the fittest, it’s life or death, it’s a daily humiliation that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Sorry, I just have to vent when this subject comes up. I’m 60 years old, and I still hurt from those junior high days. So what about the movie? Well, I liked it. I know I’m in the minority, but I noticed at Metacritic that the man that liked it the most (75%) was Roger Ebert, who I’ll bet was another hopeless fat kid.
Here’s the set-up: Our Hero, who was tormented by Woodcock in school (and the flashbacks are painful to watch), returns home for a brief visit. He’s a highly successful author of self-help books, and one of his themes is to let go of all the negativity of the past. He finds that his mom (Susan Sarandon) is dating Woodcock! He instantly reverts to the seventh grade. He is helpless to stop himself. He has to compete with Woodcock for his mom’s affections … and he is doomed to lose. Because Woodcock is not a bad man, except to young boys. He is the prototypical alpha male when around men, and it’s easy for him. He has no self-doubts, he’s seen it all and knows how to deal with it all. And with women he is charming, strong and understated and thoughtful … and in fact, though I hate to admit it, he’d probably be a good husband. Coach S was probably a good husband. (Coach E would have been a wife-beater, no question, if he could ever have convinced a female to kiss those tobacco-juice-drooling lips.) So Our Hero makes a fool of himself, repeatedly, and that’s my only complaint about the movie, some of that is a little too much to believe.
Let me tell you how much this movie resonated with me … and believe me, it’s uncanny. I haven’t mentioned the name of Our Hero. It’s John Farley. I swear! And god help me, every time Woodcock shouted out “Farley!” my bowels turned to cheese whiz, because I heard the dreaded Coach E shouting out “Varley!” I tell you, they shouldn’t make movies that hit that close to home.