Inappropriate teacher-student relationships increasingly clog our headlines. Sex scandals splashed across the front-page paint a predatory picture of authority figures crossing professional boundaries, and seize upon our collective feelings of outrage whenever a societal sense of right and wrong is violated. Increasingly reported in national news, this phenomenon has unsurprisingly provided the basis for much salacious entertainment on screen. The real life case of high school media teacher Pam Smart has twice been dramatized with Helen Hunt and Nicole Kidman in the staring roles of Murder in New Hampshire and Gun Van Sant’s To Die For respectively. David Strathairn found himself dangerously involved with a damaged student in Sundance fave Blue Car and this year, a township pitchfork parade came knocking at Julianne Moore’s door in The English Teacher. A quick Google search pulls up “The 50 Most Infamous Female Teacher Sex Scandals”, a list of shattered lives and mug shots shamefully awaiting their own big screen adaptation or TV movie of the week. Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher boldly bypasses the familiar ordeal of a woman trying to salvage her reputation. The film ends before anything goes public and begins a good while after the “see me after class” flirting and that first extracurricular tryst. Accusations aren’t hurled and suspicions never turn to slander. The only person judging anybody is the perpetrator.
We first meet Diana (Lindsay Burdge) on her morning run, seen shortly thereafter driving to school. Fairly mundane stuff were it not for the agitated strings of Brian McOmber’s score. The affair she’s recently begun having with one of her students (Will Brittain) weighs heavy on her mind and the music immediately puts us in the thick of the emotional maelstrom. Caring little for context or scene setting, Fidell gets right to examining one woman’s torn and tortured nature. Diana’s unlawful actions spring from confused urges and undetermined desires about which she hasn’t the slightest idea. Trapped in a tempest of powerful passions, the patheticness of Diana’s home life is a picture slowly pieced together by the viewer that she cannot see.
Not unduly troubled by adult responsibilities, the only thing remotely grown up about this teacher is her job. A terminally sick father is forgotten and lumped on her brother, and she’s equally dismissive of her colleagues at work. Living with a roommate like a pair of perpetual students, Diana attends house parties blaring rap music, talking to men still sipping solo cups and wearing backwards baseball hats. As juvenile as the jailbait she’s jumping, the smaller age barrier makes it almost impossible to distinguish Diana’s twentysomething suitors from the students in her care. Lovemaking has its own responsibilities, and if her sex with Eric lacks illicit charge, it’s because Diana’s own immaturity doesn’t seem to warrant it. The camera maintains a suitable emotional distance, fading out whenever things get too hot and heavy.
For lack of any real men, Diana goes looking elsewhere, though her own behaviour is aggressively adolescent. Hanging on the phone for a late night booty call like the gossipy girls whose phones she’d be confiscating in class, she willingly sends naked selfies to her horny teenage lover without a moment’s hesitation. Only after they’ve done the deed do Eric’s hormones turns cold; Diana’s immodest confession of hardly being able to wait till the next time, a painful post-coital reminder of the squalid relationship he’s entered into. Diana’s tragic dismissal of the gulf between her own adoration and a young buck’s complete indifference is crushingly conveyed by Lindsay Burdge, whose unsentimental portrayal somehow manages to find a very human vulnerability in such erratic and deeply questionable behaviour.
Finally able to resist Eric, her willpower comes too late. When he forces himself on her, Diana’s resistance is hesitant, a terrible realization of how the maw of her crime has swallowed her whole. Scared to shout at Eric for fear of setting off a teenage tantrum that could blow their cover, Diana is as much a self-saboteur as she is sexual predator, so it hardly matters past the point of no return. A shot of her morning jog in slow motion is an artful suggestion that however it plays out, there’s no outrunning what she’s done. Figuratively and literally she’s made her bed. Now she must lie in it.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 6, 2013