Sundance Next Weekend 2013 Review: A TEACHER, Lessons In Obsession Fall Flat

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Hannah Fidell's debut feature A Teacher charts the middle stretch of a student/teacher love affair. It begins well after the relationship has begun and ends in a low moment for high school AP English teacher Diana (Lindsay Burdge), but still before the shit truly hits the fan. Fidell's choice in largely exorcising the highs and lows that would come with a traditional narrative on the subject of student/teacher *ahem* relations is a bold choice. The notion being that what remains is thus bare and stripped down to the bone. Alas, what is left between 28-year old Diana and 17-year old Eric (Will Brittain) (apart from a lot of sex) is far less interesting than Brian McOmber's frantic, percussion laden score would have you believe.

The film's minimalism becomes a symptom of the director's unwillingness to define her story and characters rather than using it as a definition drawn in simplicity and starkness; elements that usually act as a through line, straight to the core of a film's emotions and themes. Fidell and Burdge aim towards obsession as the culprit of Diana's fatal attraction, and rightfully so, but Diana's increasing pull/push with Eric is mildly one-note, diffusing any tension by merely being manic/depressive with no real nuance. Sure, one could argue that rings true of a person who is on an obsessive path, but this defiance against a richer form and complexity, however minimal in technique, made me feel unengaged with the film at best.

Production-wise, A Teacher has all its ducks in a row. Burdge follows through with a woman-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown with genuineness -- albeit she is stuck in a movie that doesn't really quite understand this scenario. McOmber's score is indeed the highlight, clattering and clambering across avant-garde structures with an often riveting tempo. Andrew Droz Palermo's gray-toned cinematography recalls more a dreary European landscape, making one forget we're actually in Texas -- this makes for an interesting reflection of the character's inner states. But that is perhaps the only interesting parallel to draw from A Teacher's 75 minute run time.

Indeed, Fidell's exercise in playing with a mild, peripheral narrative scope rather than honing in on a meaty movie-of-the-week hulabaloo (which so many films playing with this subject unfortunately do) is commendable and may very well find its fans. While I in fact prefer minimalism and alternative narrative practices in cinema, definition of what the filmmaker intends, even in their ambiguity, is still key to a film's success. A Teacher lacks this focus almost entirely.   
 
A Teacher had  its world premiere last January at the Sundance Film Festival and recently played at Sundance's NEXT Weekend mini-fest. Oscilloscope will release the film on VOD in the U.S. on August 20th and in theaters starting September 6th.
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