Why do movies exist? Is it to inspire people; is it to put them in an emotional state that brings out a chosen theme or sentiment? If taking Hannah Fidell’s word for it, the filmmaking experience has everything to do with the slow emotional torture of an audience, and nothing at all to do with the conveyance of a specific theme, story arc, or development of relatable characters.
Ms. Fidell directed A Teacher, which is currently playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and while it houses one of the strongest performances by any actor in a film at the festival, this is pretty much the only thing holding the picture together. Truly, if it wasn’t for the exquisite work of its lead, Lindsay Burdge, one gets the sense that the foundation of A Teacher would have picked up and flittered away with the first strong breeze.
In A Teacher, Lindsay Burdge plays high school English instructor Diana Watts, who the film quickly introduces as a severely troubled person with a fairly serious situation on her hands. Although everything initially seems on the up and up, for her classroom routine with her students seems mundane enough, this isn’t your normal, everyday teacher. No, within minutes the audience learns that Diana is carrying on a secret affair with one of her students, Eric (Will Brittain), and what’s more, she appears hopelessly in love with the boy.
In Eric there is a dangerous, almost predatory sheen hiding just beneath the surface, for although his teenage posturing and bearing give him some swagger, this is pretty much the furthest thing from a healthy relationship as one can get, and the kid knows it. His and his teacher’s dalliance is a strange one, not just for obvious reasons, but also because Diana seems to be the one being driven in the association via her enthusiasm whilst Eric actually appears to be playing on the charged emotions of his A.P. English teacher. An interesting concept, to be sure, for the older party is usually the aggressor/initiator in these sorts of situations, A Teacher never rises above this slight cache’, and contents itself to simply take its audience on a very disturbing, troubling ride.
A Teacher is a short film and at a mere 75 minutes, one gets the sense that there’s more of a movie hiding beneath the surface than what’s given to the audience. Scenes fade in and out like snippets of a dream, giving the film an almost ethereal, transient feeling that doesn’t really allow the audience a chance to get involved in the story, difficult as that already is. Indeed, the film’s central character (an admittedly captivating Burdge), is so disgustingly perverse and emotionally broken that it’s difficult to jump into this picture’s universe. And while it’s certainly possible to make a film that has an undesirable lead, for a movie as thematically and conceptually sparse as this one, the task is made insurmountably difficult.
As A Teacher progresses, and the audience gets a better look at the depth of Diana’s sickness, things only get more difficult, for while Lindsay Burdge should be commended for successfully breathing life into a very complex character, the film does little with her performance. An overwhelming sense of dread builds from the very beginning, augmented in no small part by a haunting score anchored in a violent percussion beat rising above a messy distortion reverb in the background. It sounds like chaos, but is in fact very deliberate, for it builds momentum during the moments of the most severe emotional distress within Diana, and matches the atmosphere of the moments it appears wonderfully.
Yet this is pretty much it. Apparently content to simply throw her audience into an emotional maelstrom for no other purpose except to share Diana’s torment with the masses, director Hannah Fidell never takes her picture beyond this visceral precipice. Breathe In, another picture playing at Sundance this year, one that also deals with an adult falling for a teenager, created textured, relatable characters and a more complete universe to frame its story, something that gave it both purpose and meaning. These are two things missing in A Teacher, which wants to simply show the cinematic equivalent of a car crash rather than telling the story of how those involved happened to find each other on the road that particular day.
This is important, for what’s the purpose of cinema if not to engage its audience on a level (or levels) that both entertains, but also broadens their understanding of a particular theme or notion? A Teacher fails in both of these endeavors, for it is not only a shitty time (this movie is a slog), but it doesn’t bring its audience to a new place by the time it fades to black.
Again, while credit should be given to Lindsay Burdge for immersing herself completely into the lead role, and bringing the emotionally rotten Diana to life, this film could have been so much more than just an exploration of one woman’s perversions.