‘Front of the Class’: A Triumph Over Tourette Syndrome

The young man in this film never becomes a victim of his disability, but the victor.
‘Front of the Class’: A Triumph Over Tourette Syndrome
"A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière," 1887, by Andre Brouillet, depicts French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot's intern, Georges Gilles de la Tourette (seated in first row, wearing apron). Charcot named Tourette Syndrome after his assistant. The TV movie, “Front of the Class,” brings Tourette Syndrome into the modern day.

PG | 1h 35min | Drama | 2008

Neurodevelopmental disorder Tourette syndrome, involves sudden, involuntary jerks or noises called tics, ranging from the merely distracting to the severely disruptive or disabling. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome as a child, Missouri-born Brad Cohen overcame stiff odds to become an inspiring (and inspired) schoolteacher. Peter Werner’s docudrama draws on Cohen’s book about his troubled but triumphant journey.
Ellen Cohen (Patricia Heaton) and young Brad Cohen (Dominic Scott Kay), in "Front of the Class." (McGee Productions)
Ellen Cohen (Patricia Heaton) and young Brad Cohen (Dominic Scott Kay), in "Front of the Class." (McGee Productions)
Brad’s (Dominic Scott Kay) parents divorced when he was little and he lives with his doting mother Ellen (Patricia Heaton). His doctor, and everyone else, first believes that Brad’s tics are attention-seeking antics or flow from stress around his parents’ divorce; this is a phase he’s supposed to outgrow. That misconception costs him at school. Classmates mock him. Teachers punish him, calling him humiliatingly to the front of the class. It costs him at home, too. His father Norman (Treat Williams) scolds rather than supports him.

Ellen, however, doesn’t give up. Her desperation leads her to research his symptoms and to get Brad’s doctor to, sheepishly, confirm her diagnosis. Brad is told there’s no cure. His newfound understanding of himself, however, helps others, especially Norman, to better understand him. At one support group meeting, Brad sees those like him resigned to their fate because they’re alienated by those who fear or fault them. Children stay at home, adults are out of work. Brad resolves to live a full and fulfilled life.

Brad Cohen (James Wolk) overcomes Tourette Syndrome, in “Front of the Class.” (McGee Productions)
Brad Cohen (James Wolk) overcomes Tourette Syndrome, in “Front of the Class.” (McGee Productions)

Supported by Ellen, the adult Brad (James Wolk) courageously and cheerfully gets through college, hoping to become a schoolteacher. Still, thanks to his tics, potential hirers can’t get past first interviews, and prospective girlfriends can’t get past first dates. They figure that he can control himself and simply needs to behave. Several nerve-wracking interviews later, one school picks him as a teacher to second graders. One date, Nancy (Sarah Drew) picks him as a friend. Brad quickly endears himself to colleagues and students, teaching both to be curious about, and accepting of his condition. When his contract comes up for renewal, a teaching standards inspector arrives to decide whether he’s made the grade as teacher.

The winsome Kay and the astonishingly charming Wolk pull off riveting performances as both boy and man, as they are ravaged by rejection. Both actors portray a rare and difficult condition as if it’s second nature. The actors take turns to tell Brad’s story for the first half of the film before Wolk takes over. You care for Brad from the first scene.

Werner, his cinematographer Paul Elliott, and editor David Beatty use aggressive camera shifts and swivels, quick and abrupt cuts and jarring sounds to mimic Tourette Syndrome to a point where you feel you’re inside Brad’s world, looking out on others who don’t get it. Brad’s stubbornly upbeat voiceover captures his hurt and his heroism when he confesses that symptoms ease up when he’s happy and is more relaxed, but worsen when he’s not treated like everyone else.

To Teach Well

Brad’s family finds it hard enough to accept him because he’s so different. They’re often embarrassed or angered by his tics in public: restaurants, ball games, movie theaters. Others just find it harder, forced to indulge him more out of fear of falling foul of the Americans with Disabilities Act than out of empathy.
Nancy Keene (Sarah Drew) and Brad Cohen (James Wolk) become friends, in “Front of the Class.” (McGee Productions)
Nancy Keene (Sarah Drew) and Brad Cohen (James Wolk) become friends, in “Front of the Class.” (McGee Productions)

Poignantly, Werner uses Brad’s class of precocious students to mirror Brad’s condition. At one level, the camera considers the whole group as one organism. They’re a bit like the mouth, hands, legs, and torso of a body, obedient to the head, embodied in Brad.

At another level, sometimes one body part, embodied in the chubby but distracted little Thomas, disobeys the mind, as if it has a life of its own. Brad must remind Thomas repeatedly not to get up without permission. That’s a bit like Brad’s disobedient jaw or neck or tongue. No matter how hard he privately orders them to be still, they’re restless, when they must be attentive.

One character stuns Brad, at his wits end with repeated failure, by telling him that his gift for teaching isn’t despite his Tourette Syndrome, but because of it. Later Brad explains to a crucial job interview panel how the best teachers help children learn even if they’re more playful or slower to grasp concepts than other children. He describes how empathy is central to teaching and admits who inspired him to be a teacher, “I had an inspiring Principal, but my teachers only inspired me to be the kind they never were. In a way, the best teacher I had was my Tourette’s.”

You can watch “Front of the Class” on Hallmark, Amazon Video, and Apple TV.
Front of the ClassDirector: Peter Werner Starring: Dominic Scott Kay, James Wolk, Patricia Heaton MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes Release Date: Dec. 7, 2008 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture.