Review: ‘A Teacher’

Written and Directed by Hannah Fidell
Starring Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain, Jennifer Prediger

Read Our Interview w ‘A Teacher’ Director Hannah Fidel & Star Lindsay BurdgeHERE

A Teacher’ is a short, spare film that often withholds details. Whether through dim lighting or minimal character backstory, director Hanna Fidell’s story of a troubled high school teacher conducting a sexual relationship with her student asks its audience to read between the lines.

“A Teacher” exhibits tremendous restraint, avoiding explicit psychoanalysis of its protagonist, Diana (Lindsay Burdge).  The film does not force-feed its audience past traumas or an unhappy living situation to explain Diana’s ongoing trysts with her student, Eric (Will Brittain). Compare that to 2006’s predictable melodrama ‘Notes on a Scandal,’ in which a similarly ephebophilic teacher’s much older husband and Down syndrome-afflicted child provide a blatantly constructed need for escape. “A Teacher,” meanwhile, succeeds as a character study, in large part because it relies on situations and behavior, not contrived backstory, to convey motivations and emotions. We do not see the beginnings of Diana’s relationship with Eric, and their early interactions in the film consist mostly of terse dialogue and energetic sex.

But outside of the relationship, we get some clues into her behavior. Diana is lonely; aside from Eric, her roommate, Sophia (Jennifer Prediger), is her only real companion. At one point, she passes by a group of teachers who chat amiably. They invite her out after work, but she demurs. We see that she is cut off from her family: During a restaurant sit-down, her brother mentions that she has been avoiding their dementia-afflicted mother. Then he tells Diana that he is worried about her. Overwhelmed by what smacks of criticism, she flees the restaurant. Diana is also casually reckless: at one point, she uses her phone to text Eric a topless photo. Later, she panics when she realizes that others might see it. Diana’s antisocial behavior, mounting incautiousness, and, later, increasingly frenzied mood swings, may not make for a neat explanation of her actions. But the film recognizes that people’s most reckless sins cannot always be neatly explained. Diana’s unhappiness, self-destructiveness, and irrationality are explanation enough.

Of course, the film’s minimalism never would have worked without an excellent performance from Burdge. The tenseness in her facial expressions and the irrational panic in her voice bring Diana to life as a three-dimensional character. Unfortunately, the film’s minimalism does weaken the characterization of Diana’s paramour. Eric is laconic and vapid; all we really know about him is that he is young and good-looking. He is a thinly drawn device, necessary for Diana’s story.

The film has a unique and often striking visual style, but Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is a double-edged sword.  Palermo frequently obscures action through the use of minimal lighting, to the point of near-darkness. For instance, during a crucial scene late in the film’s second act, the camera rocks and jerks in front of an almost fully-dark bedroom, bits of dimly lit flesh cropping up and vanishing moment by moment. Such lighting and camerawork effectively convey the roiling chaos and confusion in Diana’s life (and mind). But effective as it is thematically, such photography is often disorienting. From an awkward party conversation to a relationship-threatening confrontation, it would have been more satisfying to watch certain scenes play out with a bit more clarity. Sometimes, the just eye wants to see.

In the end, “A Teacher” resists over-analysis and serves up an enigmatic, intriguing character study, in large part because of its subtlety.

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David Teich


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