Just in time for the start of the school year, writer and director Hannah Fidell, in her feature-length debut, serves up a sobering look at teacher-student relations.
The nerve-racking character study follows the psychological devolution of Diana (Lindsay Burdge), a plain but pretty—and, it turns out, manic—young high school English instructor who gets involved in a sexual relationship with Eric (Will Brittain), a confident pupil.
While A Teacher is certainly not the first film of its kind, it stands out in the teacher-student romance genre, in which the male teacher-female student scenario has historically been more prevalent. There are outliers, of course, like Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett, adapted from the 2003 Zoë Heller book. A Teacher is more in the vein of Michael Haneke’s brooding 2001 film, The Piano Teacher, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, in which Isabelle Huppert plays a repressed piano professor who has an affair with a 17-year-old pupil.
Set in Austin, Texas, A Teacher has spare dialogue and few characters, and, if the title is vague, so is the script, which, at times, seems to mistake ambiguity for complexity. This isn’t always a problem—we don’t need every question answered—but there are instances when you crave a bit more depth. Near the beginning of the film, for example, Diana meets her brother for a drink after work. It seems, though the movie never clarifies this, that she has just begun seeing Eric, and her mind is elsewhere. Her brother mentions an ailing mother and tells Diana he’s worried about her, which catapults her back into a reality she wants no part of. She leaves the table, and that’s the last we hear of the mother.
Based on the little information we are given about her, Diana, who appears to be in her late 20s, is not a particularly likeable character. The movie doesn’t moralize, though, and Ms. Burdge, in her first lead role, shows much promise as a delusional young woman who self-destructs.
“This is the happiest I’ve been in a long time,” Diana tells Eric, post-coitus, and, although he appears to be a sensitive boy, she is not perceptive enough to notice that her admittedly handsome beau is really just a horny teenager. Diana texts Eric, daydreams about him and is visibly stung when he says he has accepted an invitation to the Sadie Hawkins dance, which she has agreed to chaperone.
There are moments in which Diana is awakened to the imprudence of her actions, as when she steals away for the weekend to Eric’s family ranch and is almost caught by the property caretaker or when a freshman gets in trouble for sending a nude photo via text message and Diana demands that Eric delete the topless picture of her he has in his phone. (She couldn’t have used Snapchat?)
On the whole, though, Diana is a lost cause, and it’s almost too much to handle—until the last scene, that is. This weird and necessary moment is accompanied by a Lee Moses song that seems musically off—a soul song here?—but nevertheless marks Ms. Fidell as a filmmaker of intriguing perversity and humor, if not one a little too reliant on obviousness. The song’s title? “If Loving You Is a Crime (I’ll Always Be Guilty).”
WRITTEN BY: Hannah Fidell
DIRECTED BY: Hannah Fidell
STARRING: Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain and Jennifer Prediger
RUNNING TIME: 75 min.