Thursday, January 9, 2014

Movie Review: A Teacher

A Teacher
Directed by: Hannah Fidell.
Written by: Hannah Fidell.
Starring: Lindsay Burdge (Diana Watts), Will Brittain (Eric Tull), Jennifer Prediger (Sophia), Julie Dell Phillips (Jessica), Jonny Mars (Hunter Watts), Chris Doubek (Eric's Father), Matthew Genitempo (Dan), Cody Haltom (Rich), Robby King (Matt).

One of the only sexual double standards that work in women’s favor is that of the older woman who sleeps with a younger man. You would never see a movie like A Teacher made about a male high school teacher engaging in a consensual affair with one of his students (or the recent episode of Dateline about the same thing for that matter). Although, now that I think about it, perhaps this isn’t so much a double standard that works in women’s favor, as much as it signals how we still treat teenage boys and teenage girls – where everyone seems to be okay with teenage boys having sex, but teenage girls who engage in it are sluts (and if that’s true, then who the hell are the boys supposed to have sex with other than their teachers?). Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher is about one of those women you hear about on the news – seemingly every few months. A high school teacher caught in an affair with a one of her students. Why do these women do this? They know if they get caught – and they likely will get caught – they’ll lose their jobs, destroy their careers and family, and become a laughingstock and a pariah. A Teacher hints at some answers as to why – but frustratingly, doesn’t really follow through on any of them.

Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge) seems like a good teacher, and a mature adult. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see her in class, where she has a relaxed report with her students, and she seems well liked by the other teachers and her roommate. And then, we see her in her car with one of her students, Eric Tull (Will Brittain) having sex. When we first them, Diana is careful to be secretive – and impresses upon Eric the importance of things not getting out. When a mini-scandal hits the school – a nude picture of a freshman being passed around by phone – she ensures Eric deletes the pictures of her. A supposed romantic weekend with her teenage lover – to his family ranch – seems to be a tipping point. They are almost caught, she starts to get paranoid, and think they should cool it for a while – only to realize she is incapable of doing that – and that is what starts her implosion.

The movie makes it clear that Diana is running from something – but never identifies what it is. It probably has something to do with her mother – a brief scene has her brother show up and insists they talk about mom because “You cannot ignore it forever Diana” – only to see her run off before they actually do talk about it. Is this why she left “back east” to move to Texas in the first place? Is whatever is wrong with her mother made her regress emotionally – because as the movie moves along, it becomes increasingly clear that Diana has the maturity of a teenager “in love”, when the audience realizes it’s merely an immature infatuation.

I’m all for ambiguity in movies. Another high school set movie about a hot button topic – Gus Van Sant’s Elephant about school shootings – gradually goes down the list of what the talking heads on TV blame for these incidents, and casually dismisses them, eventually coming up with the conclusion that there is no reason. But the difference between that film and A Teacher is that writer-director Fidell clearly thinks there is a reason – and yet repeatedly comes just short of revealing what that answer actually is. It’s makes A Teacher an increasingly frustrating experience.

There are things to like about the movie – namely Burdge’s performance as Diana. While the movie doesn’t reveal to the audience just what she is running from, Burdge’s performance makes it clear it’s something – and she is excellent at showing Diana’s gradual regression to the maturity level of a teenage girl. Will Brittain’s performance as Eric isn’t as good – because the movie doesn’t really seem all that interested in him. He’s there, because he needs to be, and not much more.

To some, A Teacher will be controversial, as it is a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who sleeps with a teenage boy. Yes, Fidell stacks the deck a little bit here – Eric is clearly 16 or 17, meaning he’s at least close to the age of consent – had Fidell made him as young as some of the boys who have been caught in an affair with their teachers – say 12 or 13 – A Teacher could not possibly see her as a sympathetic figure. But for me, A Teacher isn’t controversial enough. You cannot make a movie like this, and not go farther than Fidell does here. It feels like her movie simply scratches the surface of a much more complex issue.

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