At the start of A Teacher, we’re not entirely sure what has drawn high school instructor Diana (Lindsay Burdge) into a romantic tryst with Eric (Will Brittain), a senior in one of her classes. Seventy-five minutes later when the film ends, we’re still not clear, which is exactly how writer-director Hannah Fidell wants it. A nonjudgmental, opaque drama, A Teacher conjures up the emotional landscape of its troubled titular character but intentionally provides little insight into her background or thought process. We observe her and her relationship’s unraveling without ever understanding what’s going on beneath the skin. It’s a bold strategy that doesn’t quite work.
Fidell doesn’t show how the affair began, but from what we can gather it’s been going on long enough that the participants no longer feel any weirdness about their coupling but not so long that the passion has waned. The spark of their attraction is obvious on a superficial level: Eric is a cocky, pretty kid, while the twenty-something Diana (to paraphrase an oaf she meets at a party) is the sort of hot young teacher you would have loved to have slept with in high school. But we quickly sense that this fling means different things to these people. For Eric, whose whole life stretches out in front of him, Diana is just a fun, naughty sexual conquest. But Diana’s longing for Eric goes deeper, perhaps to a level she herself doesn’t want to admit.
A Teacher’s surface is placid and matter-of-fact, flecked with brief, intense moments in the bedroom—and occasionally the car. But Brian McOmber’s demonstrative score suggests all the turmoil raging inside of Diana, moving from propulsive drums reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi soundtrack to high-drama strings. But aside from a quick visit from Diana’s far-off brother, who makes an offhand reference to the mother she’s been neglecting, A Teacher offers no clear-cut clues into what led Diana to shack up with a student. Likewise, Diana and Eric’s relationship doesn’t seem particularly special—a random collection of hookups and easy laughs but nothing resembling a deeper connection. So what is the cause of those gathering storm clouds on the soundtrack that foreshadow her eventual implosion once the tryst encounters difficulties?
It’s to Fidell’s credit that she doesn’t spoon-feed the audience the answers. The pared-down A Teacher feels like a sober response to the breathless tabloid treatment that such stories inspire in real life, arguing that seemingly ordinary people surprise us with their inexplicable actions all the time. Following her director’s enigmatic lead, Burdge plays Diana as a smiling, beautiful, slightly uncomfortable blank. Whereas Brittain focuses on Eric’s brash, shallow charm, Burdge has to create a nuanced performance in which there’s always a tension between the serene face Diana presents to the world and the vaguely anguished vibe her body language exudes.
Unfortunately, the movie’s daring approach has only limited success. Diana’s slow crumbling as she begins to have second thoughts about the relationship doesn’t play out in predictable ways, but in making the character inscrutable, Burdge and Fidell have failed to craft her in such a way that her mysteries are compelling. Largely ineffectual and reactive, Diana stumbles through this disaster of her own making, and while the film never asks us to sympathize with her, it also doesn’t give us much reason to be invested in her plight. This drama’s unadorned title is no doubt meant to deemphasize the uniqueness of Diana and her situation, but Fidell could be faulted for executing her objective too well. Diana is A Teacher, but she’s not enough of a character.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Hannah Fidell
Writer: Hannah Fidell
Starring: Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain, Jennifer Prediger
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2013