The movies that screen in Sundance are in a variety of different categories. There are four competition categories, which make up the pool of films eligible for the various awards, including the Jury Prize and Audience Award. But there are a bunch of other categories, one of which is “NEXT,” which Sundance describes as follows:
Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a “greater” next wave in American cinema.
They showcase newer filmmakers who the festival programmers think show talent that’s a bit off the beaten path. I always try to catch one or two NEXT films at Sundance, despite the fact that they almost always can be summarized as follows: “Movie X had some nice moments here and there, and shows some real promise in [actor], [director] and/or [writer] but, on the whole, it kinda missed the mark.”
A Teacher a film about a high school AP English literature teacher, Ms. Watts, who is having an affair with one of the senior boys in her class. The film picks up after their relationship has already been happening for who knows how long, and moves forward from there. It’s not a spoiler to say that things become messy.
The best thing about the film is the direction and lighting. The lighting is almost all natural-lit (or if it’s not, they did a fantastic job of making it feel naturally lit). This gives the film a voyeuristic feel, something enhanced by Hannah Fidell’s direction. Some shots are almost entirely behind the characters, making you feel like you’re eavesdropping on their conversations. Other scenes are mere moments — we cut to Ms. Watts passing her inappropriate student Eric in the hall. We see her subtle acknowledgment of their relationship, we cut to see his reaction, and then the scene fades out. The scene is quick and fleeting, just like the moment, with not a word uttered. In fact, there’s not a lot of dialogue in the film. Fidell seeks to tell her story and to share what Ms. Watts is emotionally feeling through these moments, through extensive close-ups and pans, through actress Lindsay Burdge’s actressin’. It almost works.
Part of the problem is with Burdge, a relative newcomer. As her roommate puts it, “you could wear a paper bag and you’d be cute.” It’s true. Early in film, Burdge exudes a cuteness and shows a refined ability to jump from portraying the image of a stoic teacher to a kind of puppy-dog-love happiness. Later, things get darker, and while the hair and makeup folks do a fine job of showing the physical toll on Ms. Watts, it’s here that Burdge falters. She doesn’t fail — again, it’s a good performance — but when you’re loading the film with close ups and using a minimal amount of dialogue, we need Burdge to really show us what she’s thinking and where she’s at. It’s that extra level of depth that was unfortunately missing from an otherwise decent performance. (And it puts to shame Will Brittain, who plays Eric — you pretty much never know what he’s thinking behind his raging high school hormones, though maybe that’s the point.)
The near-miss here is all the more the shame because, when Burdge is given words to say, she’s delivers them perfectly. There’s a moment later in the film where she’s unsure if Eric is going to show up. When he does, we can’t see her face, but we can hear her softly whisper “you came,” and those two words convey a heartbreaking amount of relieved desperation. This moment was the one time I felt an emotional connection to the film, and it almost made me feel sympathy for Ms. Watts who, school-boy fantasies of sleeping with a hot teacher notwithstanding, is clearly broken if not downright repugnant.
Herein lies the bigger problem with the film: There’s simply not enough of an emotional connection, one way or the other. This may be intentional to some extent, given the dissonant music that appears from the opening cut, giving the viewer an immediate sense of foreboding and an unwillingness to attach to anything. The dissonance gives way later to a nice timpani theme, which ups the adrenaline of the film and gives it a pulse, but remains emotionally off-putting. This emotional attachment, which is presumably part of the intent to give the viewer a “looking in” experience, means that there’s no resonance to the film, amounting to a resounding “so what.”
Which is why there were a few walk-outs. A cum-stained dress and a scene of road head probably helped turn away some more squeamish viewers, but the film never invites the viewer in, it invites you to watch. To put it another way, the movie goes from “Hot For Teacher” to “Every Breathe You Take,” but is lacking the “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” prequel. When I left the screening, I heard someone say they thought this was a fresh take on the student/teacher/sex trope because we didn’t see the relationship develop, and got to dive right in. But that decision had a major trapping, which is that it skipped over the most interesting psychological aspect of this type of relationship: How it happens. This was clearly the film’s goal, to dive in and show the inevitable nosedive, and while it may work for some, it just didn’t work for me. Her descent into an even darker place than schtupping your student was interesting. But the real interest for me is how and why Ms. Watts is so broken in such a fundamental way that she’s essentially become full of dark emotion, shaky morals and questionable ethics. It’s one thing to have issues and problems and baggage, and another to advance to the point where you’re fundamentally violating the ethos of your profession, societal expectations and parental trust.
The films dances around all of this with a few sparing hints. A five-minute conversation with her brother, with whom she clearly has a stilted relationship, leads to a heinous panic attack. But we’re not really sure why. She’s only been living in Texas for four years and doesn’t appear to have established any meaningful social network. But we’re not really sure why. There’s something going on with her mother, alluded to in two lines, but we don’t know if this is illness, an issue in their relationship, or something else entirely. I don’t need a movie to spoon feed me context and information, but if we’re supposed to get any real context from what we’re given, here the film fails.
Because of this I never got past the base “she’s doing a bad thing” emotion. Maybe that’s enough. Still, it’s a shame because there’s potential in the film for so much more. However, when there are six separate scenes of Ms. Watts running (no joke, six), there’s no time for the rest of it. A Teacher had some nice moments here and there, and shows some real promise in Burdge and Fidell but, on the whole, it kinda missed the mark.” Despite missing the mark, I’ll happily see whatever each does next, and I hope that they’re able to develop the potential shown here.
A Teacher premiered at Sundance 2013.