A decade ago, when I was a film festival programmer myself, I discovered I had the ability to tell, within 30 seconds, whether a movie was going to be great or not. It had something to do with just the intangible feel of a film. Upon watching it, I could detect that if, say, a shot was going on too long or the acting was bad (the biggest tell-all), or if the picture was fuzzy or the sound or music poor, then that was it, and I did not have to see the movie to the end. This is what you have to do as a film festival programmer invested in, as I was, watching each of my festival's 1200+ entries personally and with the passionate intent of finding the best of the best.
With the Atlanta Film Festival's wise programming of A Teacher, I found myself walking into the theater (a couple of minutes late, admittedly), sitting down, and then, about 15 seconds later, beating myself up for not managing my time properly (something that can easily happen to even the most seasoned of film fest attendees). "My gosh," I said to myself upon first glancing at writer/director Heather Fidell's new feature, "this movie is ridiculously intense." In a room of maybe 80 other viewers, I felt the widescreen images of such baldfaced intimacy were somehow crushing me...my soul, maybe...maybe my body, too. Anyway, Fidell, I could tell, was immediately successful in transmitting an atmosphere to her story that let's you know her film's lead character is living under enormous pressure.
As complex as it is, it's easy to summarize A Teacher. It's the story of an Austin, Texas high school English teacher (Lindsey Burge, who absolutely deserves to be seen again and again) ensconced in a relationship with her 17-year-old student (played by Will Brittain, in a brave and subtle performance). Burge's character, Diana Watts, strikes one as a woman making up for lost time. The film wisely lets us know little about her past, but you can see it on her face. There is not a lot of love there. Diana is obviously is estranged from her family (as we learn from her discomfiting meetup with her brother early on). One could not unfairly count her as a bookish type who has little romance in her own high school years. In adulthood, she's found where she needs to be (and she obviously has a warm relationship with most of her students, in maybe too few group scenes that feel like a variant out of Gus Van Sant's Elephant). She's committed to her job, yes, and keeps to her professional protocol. But there's this one little thing missing--intimacy.
This void is filled by Eric, her new paramour, whom she has to hide away from the school, its students, its administrators, her own roommate (of course, this low-paid teacher has to have a roommate, and she's aptly well-played by Jennifer Prediger) and even her own self, in many ways. Diana is truly living a double life, and A Teacher sharply portrays both the innocent sweetness of the romance she is trying to let herself in on (a very difficult conundrum to transmit in any movie), and the streamrollering strain of making the sort of ultimately poor decision she has made.
There's a terrific scene, early on in A Teacher, in which Fidell's camera is almost soley trained on Diana as she struggled to each her simple salad lunch while listening to gossip being put forth by a fellow teacher (by the way, if teachers are exposed to this much gossip, then how can they help but get involved?). Burge is able, in this scene, to communicate the emotions of jealously, frustration, secrecy, anger and concern, without hardly saying anything. She's just eating her salad here. It's brilliance on the part of the actress, the writer/director, and the cinematographer (Anthony Droz Palermo, a major new talent). But really, it's down to Burge, who does the heavy lifting with her fervent performance. So much of this A Teacher has the actress, front and center, in stultifying close-ups, searching her soul with such vividity that dialogue and story alone need not be provided (you can really feel the trust between Fidell and her lead actress). I should say here, too, I love the scene in which Diana goes to a party and is introduced to his male friends by a dunderhead (who is her own age) as "totally the teacher you wanted to bang in high school." Diana's sense of disappointment and guilt in this assessment is just devastating.
The issue, particularly these days, of female school instructors engaging is sexual relationships with their charges, is a fascinating one. For me, I always though that this was something perpetrated largely by male instructors towards female students (with often bad outcomes, but occasionally happy ones, too). Now, with women coming into the fold as workplace authorities, it's seeming now that this a human concern and not just a dirty-old-man concern. America has recently been awash in such stories of female teachers bedding their 13-to-18-year-old male students (I wonder if A Teacher would have been more powerful if the teacher in question would have landed a 14-year-old rather than a nearly-graduated 17-year-old; it certainly would have been more chancy, if perhaps less easy to watch). I also wonder how the relatively lesser penalties that have been greeted with female teachers caught in such circumstances would compare (at least, these days) with, say, a 28-year-old male teacher and a 16-year-old girl.
But A Teacher wisely keeps itself away from such speculation. Hannah Fidell's intelligent movie wants to make you feel, and understand, its concern with this situation ALONE, and it has no villains; it wastes no time with things it needs to waste no time on (there are very few characters in the film, and though it is plotted, and also deliberately paced, it's by no means excessively so on either front--it is suspenceful in all regards). And it does everything it means to do with utmost artistry and attention to detail (and here, I feel some need to mention its truly fantastic climax, which includes a bedroom scene, shot in extreme closeups, that needs to be experienced to be believed). A Teacher poses a complicated question to us all. It wants understanding, and wins that prize. A Sundance and South By Southwest hit, A Teacher is scheduled for release in NYC and LA in September (when it will simultaneously be on demand online). It is clearly one of the very great movies of 2013, and both Fidell's guidance and Burge's performance are standout shows that I am determined to keep on talking about during this year and beyond.