The archetypal modern love story of the high school jock and the unstable, yet beautiful young teacher has been told and retold in countless articles and cable TV specials. It is a tale that sheds light on troubling gender double standards in our society.
A Teacher, the new film written and directed by Hannah Fidell, which is available on iTunes and premiered commercially Friday, Sept. 6, brings these uncomfortable issues into a unique 21st-century context. It is the lead, high school English teacher Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge), however, who steals the show in this provocative yet incomplete new film.
The opening scene, accompanied by a harsh all-string score, depicts Diana from the waist up jogging down a suburban street in present day Austin, Texas. Her composed, pretty face comes remarkably close to masking the disquiet lurking just beneath the surface. Over the course of the film, Diana’s face, rarely outside of the camera’s frame, is oftentimes more revealing than the film’s narrative structure.
Diana’s first romantic encounter with studly senior Eric Tull (Will Brittain) occurs within the first couple of minutes, without any kind of background as to how their relationship might have begun. Immediately, the viewer has a sense of being dropped into the middle of the story.
Scenes in the first half of the film are broken up by extended black transitions, suggesting the fragmentation of Diana’s life, and her dreamlike existence. These unique transitions suddenly cease when the couple breaks up during a trip to Eric’s ranch. Without Eric, Diana’s intermittent dream life becomes one extended nightmare.
One of the film’s most intriguing, yet frustrating scenes occurs soon after Diana’s first rendezvous with Eric, in a stylish Austin bar, where she meets her brother in his only appearance of the film. Diana’s brother speaks of their mother, who is apparently becoming senile. Then, out of nowhere, he tells her, “I’m worried about you.” Diana storms out of the bar, as the image blurs and the camera captures her departure from a variety of compelling angles. It is unfortunate that when the cinematography is at its finest, the storytelling is at its worst. Does Diana have a history of mental illness, or a degenerative disease or does she simply have mommy issues? One other obscure reference to her mother suggests the latter, but the lack of background makes it difficult to fully comprehend Diana’s exquisitely portrayed character.
Throughout the film, Burdge does an incredible job portraying Diana’s fragmented self without playing two characters. Diana’s voice becomes higher when she is with Eric, and her demeanor becomes eerily submissive. Diana is such a convincing high school girlfriend that young people can probably connect with many of the ways she and Eric interact. Perhaps it would be most accurate to compare the couple to a slightly sadistic senior jock and an impressionable freshman girl.
A Teacher, which is so artfully done in other ways, could have been great (though still perhaps a bit confusing) if Eric had been more of a sophisticated character. It is clear that while she was creating the film, Fidell wrote him off as an emotionless “bro-type,” who only cares about getting laid. At certain moments he is the swaggering, fun-loving prom king, at other times he is the sweet, ideal boyfriend and finally, by the end, he becomes abusive and apathetic. Obviously, as evidenced by Diana’s character, good cinema can accommodate multifaceted characters, but in Eric’s case each of his divergent facets is entirely built on stereotypes. Eric is a vehicle for Diana’s development, and a symbol of male dominance, but he is not a fully developed character. A romantic relationship, no matter how unhealthy, is composed of two emotional beings and in this film, Fidell only portrays one.
In a society that fetishizes female teachers who have affairs with male students, Fidell is attempting to reverse the score. In A Teacher, Eric is the object and the airhead, whereas Diana is the human, and — as Fidell portrays it — the true victim. The film ends very much in keeping with traditional gender discourse, however; Diana will carry the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life, while Eric, apparently unscarred and unremorseful, will start his life anew in college.