Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Teacher

A TEACHER               B-                  
USA  (77 mi)  2013  d:  Hannah Fiddell                Official site

An unusual choice for a first feature, as the subject matter itself is simply never that compelling, and for that reason, the first half of the film drags terribly, as there’s little to hold the audience’s interest.  Why should we care about a smart and attractive high school English teacher sleeping with one of her students, where the idea just seems foreign to most viewers, as this is an area we’re not particularly interested in exploring.  Making matters worse, they’re something of a bore together, as Eric (Will Brittain) has very little personality, yet obviously thinks very highly of himself, if for no other reason than he’s sleeping with one of his teachers.  Due to his maturity level, who knows what he’s saying behind her back?  What is interesting is how little information is provided by the writer/director Hannah Fiddell, where the affair is in full bloom by the time the film begins, with no reference to any begin point.  It’s a bit icky to watch her in front of a classroom knowing full well what she’s doing afterwards.  They communicate via text messages, have sex in cars, or places where no one is at home, always eager to see one another again, setting up their next date, where they both behave like teenagers.  There’s never any clue why this is going on, but the story is told completely through the eyes of the teacher, Diana (Lindsay Burdge), who is on screen for the entire duration, where the audience reserves the right to withhold sympathy for a teen predator who may already be a rapist. 

The film that comes to mind might surprise some, but it’s Peter Bogdanovich’s superb THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), where Timothy Bottoms as Sonny is a high school football player who has an affair with the coach’s wife, Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, largely taking pity on her as he feels she’s so lonesome, but he also gets what he’s after in the bargain.  This is an affair that has context, as the film is about the passing of an era, how Texas oil towns like this one are drying up, eventually turning into ghost towns, leaving the jobs elsewhere.  The effect this has on the population is profoundly sad, as people’s lives are as desolate as the empty Texas landscape.  Set in the early 50’s, never once in that film did anyone ever think of rape or pedophilia.  But in A TEACHER, that’s all one thinks about, leaving a bitter aftertaste, where just watching one sexual escapade after another is difficult to watch, where much like Michael Haneke’s THE PIANO TEACHER, making the audience squirm in their seats is the desired effect.   But there is a moment that turns this film around, where the unconscionable suddenly develops a conscious.  When they are almost discovered at Eric’s father’s ranch, Diana freaks out, suddenly aware of the consequences she’s been avoiding thinking about all along.  From that point on, it’s a slow walk into the descent of her own tragic doom, becoming a tense psychological drama where her life starts to unravel before our eyes.  

Thoughtless sex was so easy for this couple, but when she thinks about losing Eric and what might happen if she loses her job, it’s not so easy, and she yearns for simpler times when it came automatically.  Her own emotional dysfunction turns young Eric off, as he’s not getting his way, as she’s becoming a hassle to deal with, all things that complicate the life of an overly pampered and uncomplicated teenager.  The use of percussive drum sounds amassing in her head is quite effective, as she’s emotionally off kilter, unable to stop the madness that’s enveloping her.  She becomes more and more obsessed with having Eric as her own personal plaything, where the tables have turned, and she becomes the pleading child that begs to spend time together, while his indifference only feeds her mental instability.  This section shows some inspired filmmaking, as Burdge’s performance is stunning, where we’re at times sympathetic, fascinated, and repulsed by what we see, as Diana becomes overly obsessed to the point where she becomes a stalker, and still can’t stop herself.  What’s most effective here is how completely naturalistic she makes it feel, as the audience is locked into her mindset, where she makes a beeline into mental confusion and personal despair.  We never learn the source of her return to teenage adolescence, though she’s not close with her family.  She spends all her time on her cellphone, continually checking out photos of Eric on his Facebook page, avoiding all other social contact, isolating herself until he’s the only thing in her life that matters, where what might have been a schoolgirl crush turns into statutory rape territory.  What’s perhaps most startling is the director’s choice to use such quiet restraint as we simply observe Diana when she finally realizes all is lost.  It’s a brief venture into forbidden territory, and by the time it’s all over, none of it seems to matter anymore.   

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