There’s a Rorschach-like appeal to “A Teacher,” Hannah Fidell’s penetrating new drama that could be about any single one of a number of contemporary neuroses. Yesterday’s troubled heroines, often played by gorgeous legends of silver screen, took one look up at a demanding camera and you immediately knew what troubled them. Usually, the prescription was a wide-shouldered man. Today’s leading ladies, and the modern citizen as a whole, cannot be read so easily. A glimpse at twenty-something Diana (a stand out Lindsay Burdge) reveals stringy hair, tired pale skin and a hunched posture. It’s only when you see her haunted face, and the occasional smile that feels elevated by marionettes, that you find out her main problem may be timeless, old-fashioned loneliness.
Diana doesn’t opt to fill this chasm inside her with a man, but instead a boy. Finely-coiffed teen Eric (Will Brittain) is the pupil of choice, an All-American young stud destined to move on to bigger things. Diana doesn’t seem to realize those things don’t involve the center seat in the English class she teaches, where he bares the sheepish smile of every teenager who doesn’t realize their pleasure is inevitably damaging another life. After school, they are both flirty and nervous, though her shyness is clearly a construct, meant to bring him closer, and eventually into her backseat, where they can romp away from the potentially judging eyes of Diana’s friendly roommate.
Diana spends most of her time with the boy mooning over his simple beauty; it’s a look not of love, but of deep investment. Without him, she can barely manage, slipping into her quiet professional mode, mentally checking out during conversations with friends and family. Burdge sometimes seems as if she’s creating two characterizations simultaneously: the one that flees at the first sight of human interaction, and the shell left behind, too paralyzed to act. Fidell keeps the focus so tight on Diana that it often seems like everyone else is a one-dimensional obstacle, as if they spoke in the “Peanuts” wah-wah voice of an authority figure. When she is face-to-face with a hipster of the same age who brags odiously about his classicist photo blog of homeless people, Fidell seems to be gesturing loudly towards the futility of ever finding a friend. Frequently, the film toes the line between genuine despair and loathsome misery, easily finding ways to stumble into either side.
Well shot with some striking sequences of sound, music and visuals, “A Teacher” is often perceptive but sometimes thin, attempting to find poetry in Diana’s needy behavior, like her obsessive cyber-stalking through social networks. She scowls at his extracurricular partners, though deep down you suspect he’s been selected specifically for his alpha-male qualities and star quarterback handsomeness on a universal level. His idea of a romantic getaway is surprisingly literal to her, as he drives her to a ranch out-of-town, into the great blue yonder in a way that almost mocks the crowded apartment she shares, the bulk of her time spent alone in the dark hunched over her laptop. His reaction to almost being caught suggests a devil-may-care attitude that she doesn’t share: maybe he knows about the double standard towards men in sexual abuse situations like this. Maybe he’s just high off of scoring with most likely the prettiest teacher in school. While she has a skittishness towards being with him around others, her wanting eyes suggest she’s aroused by his cavalier attitude.
The film’s narrow interest causes the narrative to stumble into its last act. A film like this can only feature a doomed protagonist either abandoning her self-destructive behavior or doubling down. While one wants to applaud the film for not condemning Diana or criminalizing her desires, it also seems a bit of an easy out that Brittain has a square-jawed collegiate physique. Men have been rightly chastised for oogling younger female superstars, but there hasn’t been much scrutiny to the post-“Twilight” cougar-ization of older women and their sexualized hunger for Justin Bieber-aged boys on the cusp of adulthood. It’s a taboo freely-shattered by mainstream media, and one wonders why “A Teacher” has so little to say about what makes Diana’s outlet a more masculine, but still boyish student, instead of a more commonly-underdeveloped kid, and what this suggests about what is clearly a generational divide between Diana and her peers. The intensity of Burdge’s excellent performance—and Fidell's intense, often claustrophobic filmmaking—carries the picture far, but when she turns away from the camera (and she does often), you can almost feel Fidell reaching for spare ideas. [B]