Hannah Fidell’s debut feature A Teacher has been getting something of a critical drubbing in the media since it opened on Friday September 6 in Manhattan; and yet it seems to me that the movie is remarkably successful in a small, quiet way. I also notice a divide between more knowledgeable viewers, and those who want a more melodramatic, Sirkian narrative – but that’s not what’s happening here. This isn’t hyped up or stylized; it’s shot on location, with minimal theatrics, and is in every way the antithesis of a typical Hollywood – or Lifetime movie – version of this oft-told tale, where everything is laid out in step-by-step fashion.
Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge, giving a remarkable performance) is a high school English teacher in Texas – she used to live on the East coast, but moved to Texas four years earlier, for unspecified reasons, the narrative tells us – and she’s having an affair with one of her students, Eric Tull (Will Brittain, equally good). The film is a series of stolen moments, furtive encounters, and shifting power dynamics, as Diana loses control of her already unstable equilibrium, and of course, the whole thing ends horribly.
That’s really all there is to it – we watch the film for the 75 brief minutes it encompasses, and witness the complete emotional meltdown of Watts as the affair inevitably unravels. Diana and Eric have sex in the back seat of cars, at Diana’s apartment when her roommate isn’t around, and even at Eric’s father’s ranch, where their cover is almost blown by the ranch foreman, who nearly surprises them in bed. Diana keeps taking foolish risks, and her behavior is clearly unethical, but she seems unable to stop herself from assured self-destruction. And it seems like this is a pattern Diana has repeated in the past.
From the first frame of the film, we get the sense that Diana has lost touch with reality. Even assigning a routine quiz to her class, with the affair already underway, Diana seems abstracted, drifting, not really present. She’s damaged with a capital “D”, and Fidell needs only a few scenes to flesh this out, like a very brief encounter with her brother Hunter (Jonny Mars) over drinks, to discuss the deteriorating mental condition of their mother, a meeting which Diana bails on in a matter of minutes – she clearly wants nothing to do with her family, or her past – she’s trying to escape from something, whatever it is.
Indeed, in the publicity materials for the film, Fidell revealed that Diana’s backstory was all there – she just didn’t feel the need to put it on the screen. As she noted, “Lindsay and I created a backstory for [Diana] – one which doesn’t really appear in the film. [Diana] had cared for her sick father while her brother, Hunter, was in college, and that’s something she just doesn’t want to live through again,” so when the onset of her mother’s dementia starts to impinge on her life, she refuses to be involved.
A number of critics have taken Fidell to task precisely for this calculated withholding of information – they want everything spelled out for them; perhaps flashbacks of her earlier life, or some reason as why she hooked up with Eric in the first place, or some backstory on Watts or Eric, something fleshed out. But this is precisely why the film works so well; it doesn’t really tell you anything about how the characters got to where they are, or why; it just shows the slow motion crash that results in excruciating detail. Diana runs every morning, to work off the stress in her life, but it obviously doesn’t help; she’s a perfect example of the human wreckage review.
Again, we have no idea who started the affair, or even how it got started, but that doesn’t interest Fidell; she’s following a disaster in progress. And once it starts the affair almost immediately begins to unravel. Diana behaves like an impetuous teenager herself, actually sexting Eric, only later realizing how foolish this was, and demanding that he erase the photo from his phone. Eric immediately complies, rather than trying to blackmail her, which would be a much more conventional way to handle the scene. This is just one instance of how the film differs from a more traditional narrative form; readily identifiable cause and effect relationships defined, music that “tells” you how to feel in any given scene, and scenes of artificial confrontation to amp up audience interest.
Indeed, Fidell seems almost like a spectator in her own film, presenting the entire narrative in a flat “never apologize, never explain” fashion that lends A Teacher striking verisimilitude. What’s happening on the screen is wrong – dead wrong – but Fidell remains detached with what she is both witnessing and producing, as if examining her characters from a distance. She’s not going to judge – she’s going to leave that to us. The film is also intimate in the most uncomfortable manner, but it’s never exploitational – it doesn’t linger on scenes, but rather cuts them short with fadeouts that seem to suggest that Fidell doesn’t want to let us become too involved, either.
As Diana spirals into a complete breakdown, she begins stalking Eric, going to his home, telephoning his father to get Eric on the phone, finally pleading with Eric to continue the affair as Eric’s father lumbers down the driveway late at night on the front lawn of the Tull home, all too cognizant of what’s going on. By this time, Eric has realized that Diana is mentally ill, and he’s frightened of her; he wants nothing to do with her, and tells her to leave, which she does, but she doesn’t go home. Instead, she drives for a long time until she reaches a shabby motel, where she apparently checks in (this happens off-screen) and then wanders down the corridors looking for her room.
Once inside, she checks her phone, so unstable that she momentarily can’t even remember her passcode. She has two messages waiting for her; the one that matters is from her principal, alluding in typically bureaucratic language to the fact that Eric and his father are pressing charges, and she is to report to his office immediately. But she doesn’t even wait to hear the complete message; she knew this was coming. Diana clearly has no intention of reporting to anyone’s office; she’s going to run. Where, we don’t know. How, we don’t know. What will happen, we have no idea. But we know there’s no going back for Diana – she has to flee.
We also get the distinct feeling that this has all happened before, and that she’s seen other rundown motels in her past, other phone calls from authority figures, other obsessional affairs. All of what we have seen has happened in brief vignettes, and we’re left to sketch in the details, if we really want to, but really – why? I, for one, found it refreshing to be treated with a degree of intelligence by a filmmaker, who assumes – quite rightly – that I don’t need or want every detail spelled out for me.
A Teacher is a film that refuses to moralize, or temporize, but instead presents the story of Diana’s descent into madness with breathtaking economy; at 75 minutes, the film is the perfect length. Gorgeously photographed in CinemaScope by the gifted Andrew Droz Palermo, a rising start of the indie movement as an innovative DP, A Teacher is both harrowing and memorable, refusing to let us off the hook too easily, pulling us into Diana and Eric’s doomed tryst with uncomfortable intensity.
In the end, Eric is damaged; Diana has destroyed herself; and we still know almost nothing about the people we’ve been watching on the screen, other than the fact that the entire affair has ended in tragedy for all concerned. Told in a series of cool, contemplative set-ups that convey both the emptiness and self-destruction inherent in the narrative, A Teacher is an assured, confident debut for Hannah Fidell. She’s just 27 right now, and the future seems full of possibilities; I’m really curious as to what she’ll do next.
A much shorter, edited version of this review originally appeared in Cinespect.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world.