If cinema can be divided into paintings and sketches, “A Teacher” is an example of the latter, a slender, 75-minute glimpse into the life of a high-school English teacher having an affair with one of her students that leaves audiences none the wiser for having seen it. Remarkable only in its refusal to judge the situation, writer-director Hannah Fidell’s script eschews dramatically constructed scenes for a series of observed moments, shifting the burden to Lindsay Burdge’s pent-up performance. The actress renders the character so very ordinary, one can almost relate, though few will, given pic’s serious-minded, yet willfully noncommercial approach.
On the surface, Diana Watts (Burdge) doesn’t appear much different from the other teachers at Westerbrook, a nearly-all-white central-Texas high school. Still in her 20s, she’s better-looking than most, which might turn a few of the hormone-filled heads on campus, but her demeanor is so plain that few would imagine her having much in the way of an extracurricular existence. Nor does she. Diana has one friend, her roommate Sophia (Jennifer Prediger, a fellow indie actress who exudes the kind of energy Burdge withholds) and barely maintains contact with her family.
But she has a secret: Diana is sleeping with Eric Tull (newcomer Will Brittain), a cocky rich kid with a jock’s build and a brand-new SUV. Sneaking around after school, they have sex in the back of her old Volvo; on campus, they exchange knowing glances in the school hallways. But, of course, what they’re doing is wrong. The film may not say so, but both characters are clearly aware, possibly allowing the secrecy and shame to amplify the thrill of their illicit trysts.
Beyond the turmoil suggested by Brian McOmber’s score, it’s hard to say exactly what they’re feeling. The lovers don’t talk much, which not only frustrates the viewing experience but also lends a degree of irony to the title: Diana is never shown teaching Eric anything. This is not what is euphemistically known as a “sexual education.” For one, Eric is probably not a virgin (Brittain is 21 and looks like he could have any girl he wants), and when they’re together, he displays none of the fumbling one associates with adolescent discovery. In fact, she lets him set the agenda, stripping or “sexting” at his command.
As one of Sophia’s uncouth friends puts it, “She is totally the teacher that all the dudes in high school wanted to bang.” And Eric is likely a stand-in for the letterman b.f. she wanted back in school. The traditional thinking goes that such relationships are verboten because the teacher holds unfair power over her student, violating her role as an authority figure, but as Fidell presents events, Eric seems to be having the time of his life, while Diana’s the one who stands the most to lose.
It’s troubling to watch such an episode unfold in an amoral vacuum, where the only reason to stop is the fear of getting caught. To some extent, their seemingly inevitable discovery serves as the carrot that leads auds along. No doubt, the sexual titillation of the subject matter will intrigue a few, and Fidell certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting their covert booty calls, but as far as the pic’s dramatic possibilities go, affairs such as these inevitably lead to explosive scandals (when they are found out).
Given her low-key treatment of the incidents themselves — rendered even more detached by digital lensing that keeps its subjects at arm’s length — Fidell could have chosen to tell a version in which Diana and Eric get away with it. Certainly, she has deliberately chosen to avoid the sensationalism someone like Larry Clark (who has dedicated a fair amount of his collage and video art to news reports of student-teacher relations) might have brought. But she also falls far short of her Euro art-cinema models: One can feel the icy hand of Michael Haneke’s influence, but precious little of his insight into human nature.
As first features go, “A Teacher” demonstrates a willingness to provoke, but doesn’t seem to understand the minimum expectations most audiences place on films in terms of both incident and characterization. It’s right at home in Sundance’s Next section and will surely find other festivals willing to take seriously its open-ended, under-written approach.