This year’s Sundance Film Festival was rife with films about inappropriate sexual relationships, especially already-shocking May-December dalliances made still more inappropriate by uncomfortable power dynamics. Drake Doremus’ Breathe In tackled the almost-romance between an exchange student and her male guardian (one who was also her teacher), Liz W. Garcia’s The Lifeguard featured a twentysomething female lifeguard who takes up with a teen boy who lives in the condo complex where she works, and Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers centered on adult female friends who both fall in love with the other’s son, ensuring that Hannah Fidell‘s A Teacher would fit quite neatly in the festival’s most trendy programming. But fortunately for the director/writer/producer, Fidell’s finely tuned feature is a stand-out film in an apparently crowded field.
Unlike both Breathe In and The Lifeguard, Fidell’s film doesn’t track those first hesitant steps toward sex and romance between a disastrously (and often criminally) mismatched pair as, when we meet high school teacher Diana (an astonishingly good Lindsay Burdge) and her student Eric (Will Brittain), they’re already in the middle of their sexual relationship. All is not well, of course, and composer Brian McOmber‘s loud and abrasive (and we mean that in the best way possible) score, which queues up the second the film opens, makes sure we know that from the get-go. This is a doomed relationship in every sense.
While we never know exactly why or how Diana and Eric started their relationship, the young teacher does seem to be passably cool to her kids (she’s young enough, pretty enough, relaxed enough with them) and the smartass student appears to be a popular teen who both likes girls and likes holding sway over them. For awhile, there relationship may have actually felt like one built on equanimity and like interest (though, of course, the age issues and the power structure refute that, no matter how the characters might feel), but A Teacher steadily leads us into darker places as that tenuous balance no longer holds true.
It’s fairly obvious straightaway that Diana and Eric are not building a solid relationship – Diana is all emotions and feelings (she’ll be the one to say how happy she is, while Eric seems unable and unwilling to respond in emotional terms), while Eric is focused on the physical and sexual aspects of their relationship (he appeals to Diana’s emotions in order to get her to send him some sexy photos), and the pair never talk about anything of meaning or consequence. Yet Fidell still surprises with the direction of her film, and as honest as it is, as true as it feels, A Teacher still packs a punch.
Fidell’s script is an economical one (the film is just seventy-five minutes, a perfect length for the material), and its second half is wonderfully upsetting and filled with unease. Fidell knows how to craft tension – not jump scare tension – but emotional tension, the kind we know is going to pay off with something horrifying and real and honest, something we cannot escape or avoid, but something with a message. After all, A Teacher is about lessons.
The Upside: An excellent performance from lead Lindsay Burdge; an economically and efficiently written script; a densely tense final half.
The Downside: Undercooked supporting characters and backstory give little insight into the catalyst of the story.
On the Side: A Teacher is Fidell’s feature film debut. It’s a pretty solid start.