Review: Hannah Fidell’s ‘A Teacher’ Is A Flawed But Striking Drama Nonetheless

Review: Hannah Fidell's 'A Teacher' Is A Flawed But Striking Drama Nonetheless

There’s a Rorschach-like
appeal to “A Teacher,” Hannah Fidell’s penetrating new drama that could be
about any single one of a number of contemporary neuroses. Yesterday’s troubled
heroines, often played by gorgeous legends of silver screen, took one look up
at a demanding camera and you immediately knew what troubled them. Usually, the
prescription was a wide-shouldered man. Today’s leading ladies, and the modern
citizen as a whole, cannot be read so easily. A glimpse at twenty-something Diana (a stand out Lindsay Burdge) reveals stringy hair, tired pale skin and a hunched posture.
It’s only when you see her haunted face, and the occasional smile that feels
elevated by marionettes, that you find out her main problem may be timeless,
old-fashioned loneliness.

Diana doesn’t opt to fill this
chasm inside her with a man, but instead a boy. Finely-coiffed teen Eric (Will
) is the pupil of choice, an All-American young stud destined to move
on to bigger things. Diana doesn’t seem to realize those things don’t involve
the center seat in the English class she teaches, where he bares the sheepish
smile of every teenager who doesn’t realize their pleasure is inevitably
damaging another life. After school, they are both flirty and nervous, though
her shyness is clearly a construct, meant to bring him closer, and eventually
into her backseat, where they can romp away from the potentially judging eyes of
Diana’s friendly roommate.  

Diana spends most of her time
with the boy mooning over his simple beauty; it’s a look not of love, but of
deep investment. Without him, she can barely manage, slipping into her quiet
professional mode, mentally checking out during conversations with friends and
family. Burdge sometimes seems as if she’s creating two characterizations
simultaneously: the one that flees at the first sight of human interaction, and
the shell left behind, too paralyzed to act. Fidell keeps the focus so tight on
Diana that it often seems like everyone else is a one-dimensional obstacle, as
if they spoke in the “Peanuts” wah-wah voice of an authority figure. When she
is face-to-face with a hipster of the same age who brags odiously about his
classicist photo blog of homeless people, Fidell seems to be gesturing loudly
towards the futility of ever finding a friend. Frequently, the film toes the
line between genuine despair and loathsome misery, easily finding ways to
stumble into either side.

Well shot with some striking sequences of sound, music and visuals, “A Teacher” is often
perceptive but sometimes thin, attempting to find poetry in Diana’s needy
behavior, like her obsessive cyber-stalking through social networks. She scowls
at his extracurricular partners, though deep down you suspect he’s been
selected specifically for his alpha-male qualities and star quarterback
handsomeness on a universal level. His idea of a romantic getaway is
surprisingly literal to her, as he drives her to a ranch out-of-town, into the
great blue yonder in a way that almost mocks the crowded apartment she shares,
the bulk of her time spent alone in the dark hunched over her laptop. His
reaction to almost being caught suggests a devil-may-care attitude that she
doesn’t share: maybe he knows about the double standard towards men in sexual
abuse situations like this. Maybe he’s just high off of scoring with most likely
the prettiest teacher in school. While she has a skittishness towards being
with him around others, her wanting eyes suggest she’s aroused by his cavalier

The film’s narrow interest
causes the narrative to stumble into its last act. A film like this can only
feature a doomed protagonist either abandoning her self-destructive behavior or
doubling down. While one wants to applaud the film for not condemning Diana or
criminalizing her desires, it also seems a bit of an easy out that Brittain has
a square-jawed collegiate physique. Men have been rightly chastised for oogling
younger female superstars, but there hasn’t been much scrutiny to the post-“Twilight
cougar-ization of older women and their sexualized hunger for Justin
-aged boys on the cusp of adulthood. It’s a taboo freely-shattered by
mainstream media, and one wonders why “A Teacher” has so little to say about
what makes Diana’s outlet a more masculine, but still boyish student, instead
of a more commonly-underdeveloped kid, and what this suggests about what is
clearly a generational divide between Diana and her peers. The intensity of
Burdge’s excellent performance—and Fidell’s intense, often claustrophobic filmmaking—carries the picture far, but when she turns away from the
camera (and she does often), you can almost feel Fidell reaching for spare
ideas. [B]

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