December 2, 2008 / 1:50 AM / 11 years ago

"Class" earns high grades with tale of courage

Front of the Class , 9-11 p.m.; CBS)

By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions are typically feel-good, life-affirming movies that put a dent in your supply of tissues. But not all of them are rendered as perfectly as CBS’ “Front of the Class,” an especially touching story of a young man who would not let Tourette’s syndrome keep him from what he loved most: teaching.

The story is based on Brad Cohen’s autobiographical book and stars daytime soap actor Jimmy Wolk as present-day Brad and Dominic Scott Kay as a young Brad. Although TV often depicts people with Tourette’s as uncontrollably foul-mouthed, these cases represent only a tiny percentage of those with the disability. Brad’s type of Tourette’s, with involuntary tics and noises like a dog’s bark, is more common.

Despite the considerable amount of information it gives on Tourette’s, “Front of the Class” succeeds because it is good while doing good. It’s filled with dramatic moments that are as truthful as they are inspiring. Director Peter Werner knows exactly where to take each scene to make it resonate with honesty but stops short of emotional manipulation.

Working with Wolk and Kay, Werner also understands the importance of making Brad heroic but not without frailties. As a child, Brad convinced himself that Tourette’s was his lifelong companion that, at its best, could teach him important lessons about human nature. That bit of disassociation is crucial in helping Brad cope with otherwise difficult situations.

Tom Rickman, who adapted the book, puts Brad’s struggle in admirable perspective. There are the obvious school scenes in which his behavior is mistaken for intentional clowning. But there’s also a scene with the boy and his mother (Patricia Heaton) attending a Tourette’s support group. When they realize that nearly everyone in the room has lowered their ambitions as an accommodation to the condition, they don’t stay long.

The impeccable casting includes Treat Williams as Brad’s divorced dad, tormented by conflicting feelings of love, guilt and impatience. Wolk and Kay give brilliant, convincing and consistent portrayals, which are absolutely key to the film’s success.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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