Tuesday 29 January 2019

Article: She’s Lost Control – Some words on A Teacher (2013)

Hannah Fidell’s debut movie A Teacher is short on running time but high on anxiety. It feels like pouring scalding water into a small cup over someone head while they are bound. Filling the container to the brim with the subject wincing in the knowledge that the cup at any time could spill or overflow. Drops of the liquid sting the person’s head, as they await with dread the moment that the pourer will twist their waist. Someone is going to get hurt.

That someone is Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge). The film starts innocuously with a small glimpse of her basic routine. Jogging. Driving to work. Finally, we land at her job. She teaches English to High Schoolers. One student; Eric Tull (Will Brittain), asks for a book. It is handed to him with no incident. You feel that Diane’s face flickers slightly after the ask. If only for a second. Later that evening, the two meet up again. Eric walks with a swagger into Diane’s car. They have sex. We now understand that flicker.

The story is familiar. There’s been films and novels involving Ephebophilia since time memorial. Alissa Nutting’s debut novel; Tampa (2012) treads in similar ground, while Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame, wading into the pool with his second film Liberal Arts (2013). But A Teacher refrains from toppling into the fully amoral quandary of Tampa, nor does it hedge self-satisfied bets like Radnor’s feature. Fidell’s film follows a more plausible outcome not too dissimilar to the likes of Kristen Roupenian’s popular short story Cat Person (2017), where characters are left isolated and fractured due to the dynamics at play.

A Teacher lacks the seductive temptress who inhabits a novel like Tampa. Nutting’s main character isn’t just deliciously sinful but is almost a model by description, designed almost exclusively to lure in the male gaze. It’s no surprise that Tampa’s lead could easily entice in an impressionable teen. Diana as a character is neatly framed as the type of young, approachable woman that you wouldn’t be surprised to walk down a school hall.

This is within the build of the character in which the film finds of its small areas of complexity. Diana is young and pretty but is not set up as the vampy predator, dressed to turn the heads of horny young boys as well as pervy parents or snooty work colleagues. Nor does she hold the type of personality that draws attention to herself. Her colleagues are mildly shocked that she has a brother; Hunter (Jonny Mars). We don’t know the timespan of Diana relationship with Eric, but it’s long enough to see that it’s carnal, comfortable and kept away from her roommate, whom she is relatively close to. Fidell layers more complication to proceedings in small doses. In a singular scene involving her brother, he refers to their mother who is suffering from an undisclosed mental illness. When Hunter mentions his concern for Diane, the conversation is shut down. There’s enough ambiguity to suggest not only an ailing parent but possible past conflict. The most poignant conversation Diana holds with Eric has her reference secretly having sex with her high school boyfriend unbeknown to her mother, again alluding to a vague possibility of trauma. Fidell drops breadcrumbs within the story but never sets down a full trail, allowing a viewer to question the reasonings of the behaviour.

Diana is framed by Fidell as an archipelago through the film. Isolating her from characters with simple blocking or surrounding her with large amounts of negative space. The one hobby we see Diana have is running, and she is shown performing this solitary hobby throughout the film. One of the more telling moments has Diana wandering amongst the wilderness of a ranch, which Eric’s father owns, the changes from a panning close-up to static as she grows smaller within the frame. Early on her roommate introduces her to two shlubby men more suited to her age. “You’re the teacher that every little kid wanted to bang” one states. It’s an amusing wink to the situation, but it also highlights the arrested development which seems rampant within the narrative. There’s no surprise that Diana is looking elsewhere to date when her so-called suitors are working on websites called LOLpoorpeople.com, yet by embarking on the relationship which appears doomed from the outset with a teenager, Diana shows her own irresponsibility, again leaving her adrift and isolated.
Whereas Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts does little particularly interesting with the hot for teacher narrative, Fidell takes the things to haunting, plausible places. One feels that she’s able to by simply making the switch of gender. Fiction is littered with older males having a younger woman as a springboard to “finding himself”. I’m hard on Radnor’s liberal arts because it’s so soft on itself. Vaguely charming at times it’s a film that smugly allows its character to waltz into this young girl’s life, have a little bit of a fling but walk away with everyone “grown”. Fidell’s film is far more interested in muddying the waters with the power dynamics.

Diana, the person who should be seen as the moral compass, stumbles into a grease pit of fixation based around her impulsiveness. Eric not only as a jock with boyish charm but as a relatively sensible teenager who just happens to have the coding of the type of adolescent sweetheart that you could see girls reminiscing about after their school days end. Fidell frames Eric in dreamy white vignettes when Diana daydreams about him. In one instance she sends him a nude image with no foresight into what doing so may entail. Fidell’s blocking of these characters arrives at its strongest point when a seated Eric instructs Diana framed and confined in a doorway) to strip. Diana; the adult, the teacher is standing above Eric the student, and yet he holds all the power. A reverse play of Jemima Stehil’s strip photo set series in which the power of the sexual dynamics’ rests within Stehil herself despite asking prominent male players in the art world to take pictures of her while she disrobes. There is only one moment in which Eric’s control over Diana is relented, but even by the film's conclusion, it is clear how much is at stake for Diana over him.

It is the adolescent-like behaviour exhibited by Diana, through a deeply committed performance by Lindsay Burdge which makes A Teacher an absorbing watch. In this current age where modern culture writers want to reduce views of gender into 280 characters, Fidell creates a film which poses complicated questions around female desire, while wringing pockets of empathy from places we may not expect. Diana is no simpering wallflower, nor is she a hyper-confident mega bitch. A Teacher is smart in portraying a complicated woman who simply does not have her life on her own terms. Fidell intelligently mines the drama within that.

It’s easy to say that we should be morally against what occurs in the film. That’s easy. What’s interesting here is watching a film which garners an element of compassion over a situation we’ve clearly been told is wrong. But this is a film which is far more interested in emotional investment and portraying mood via camera placement. Due to this, the film’s resolution may come across as unsurprising and abrupt, yet it still says everything it needs to more accurately than a film with double it’s running time. By the end of the film’s mere 75 minutes, we’ve watched the cup spill over. It burns.

A Teacher is Available on Amazon Prime in the UK