Audiences, young and mature, tend to flock to movies set in high school. The memories, the petty horrors, and the glory of senior year all seem to resonate with people, regardless of age. Still, aptly capturing the reality (and ridiculousness) of high school while creating an interesting, sophisticated film is quite a feat. The English Teacher accomplishes this, both appropriating and dismantling other clichés (like the inspirational teacher and the student/teacher love affair) with just the right of amount of tongue-in-cheekiness throughout all of the drama. Funny and fulfilling, Craig Zisk has created a small, triumphant feature film debut.
Countless films have focused on the difficult but admirable life of the artist, but The English Teacher stands out as a story that takes the arts seriously, without taking itself too much so, even as it is full of characters who do quite the opposite. Julianne Moore plays Linda Sinclair, the English teacher many writers will recall from their high school years—intelligent, passionate, supportive, and inspiring. Moore is perfect as the slightly geeked-out lover of literature—the type that does not even bother with a personal life, having been convinced by too many great works that “the true romantic is always alone.” But her world gets a much-needed rocking when a former student (Michael Angarano) shows up in town having had little success making it big in NYC, but with an amazing—and not-quite-safe-for-high-school—script that Linda attempts to produce in the school, along with the high school drama teacher (played expertly by Nathan Lane).
The presentation of Moore’s character is refreshing, for The English Teacher is indeed another film about an inspiring teacher who pushes her students and makes great sacrifices. However, Linda also makes these grave errors in her personal and professional life. Not only does this provide much of the plot of the film, but it also makes for a more original and whole character. And while Linda may fancy herself one of the last true romantics, with careful editing and a few clever (almost cutesy) tricks in narration, Zisk successfully takes some of the heaviness out of the story, and makes it a true comedy.
The comedic factor does not, however, detract from the meat of the story, much of which stems from these very serious artists (including the playwright, the drama teacher, and even the student actors) who must break down, give in, and make concessions and confessions of their own for their true artistry to show through. As each main character transforms, viewers watch the play (appropriately titled The Chrysalis) make the ever-difficult transition from page to stage. This transition also provides much of the film’s humor, as it is originally and fondly described by Lane’s character as “O’Neil meets Kafka meets Spielberg—and they all walk into a bar together,” but it must take on a new life to become a successful high school play.
Throughout it all (with surprisingly great subtlety, which might be attributed to writers Dan and Stacy Chariton), Zisk allows his audience to become almost subconsciously aware of the fact that nearly everyone in the movie is lying about something. Waiting for all of the secrets to emerge provides a fantastic sensation, and it’s rare that a fun comedy (with almost as many f-bombs as Superbad) plays so maturely.
The message of The English Teacher is simple: never, ever return to high school (not as a former student, and not as a teacher engaging in high school-like behavior). But there is a greater message about art and expectations of the artist. The English Teacher works to dismantle that tired “those who can’t, teach” notion, and it also challenges the idea of what it means to be a successful artist. With strong performances from the aforementioned cast members, along with Greg Kinnear and Lily Collins, Craig Zisk has achieved the difficult task of making a smart, independent film that is, somehow, not overwhelmed with quirkiness. If Zisk continues to take the occasional break from the small screen (having had success on shows like Weeds and Parks and Recreation), the genre will surely be better for it.
Director: Craig Zisk
Writer: Dan Chariton, Stacy Chariton
Starring: Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Michael Angarano
Release Date: May 17, 2013