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PARK CITY – Writer-director Hannah Fidell’s unsettling debut feature, A Teacher, is driven by a commandingly internalized performance in the title role from Lindsay Burdge. She plays a high school teacher whose illicit sexual relationship with a male student spirals from infatuation into reckless obsession. But what makes the film work is that this potentially lurid material is treated at all times with sensitivity and probing psychological seriousness.
Set to the cacophonous strains of Brian McOmber’s opening music, the first brooding shots of Diana (Burdge) jogging and then driving to work at her Texas school make it clear this is not a carefree young woman. She loosens up in class in front of her students, but Diana’s somber side resurfaces whenever she’s alone. The suggestion of borderline alienation is enhanced by having Andrew Droz Palermo’s camera trail her along the sterile school corridors, in a spare visual style somewhat reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers.
Fidell drops us into Diana’s story when it’s already under way, declining to show how her trysts with good-looking senior Eric (Will Brittain) got started. They hook up in her car, at her apartment when her roommate Sophia (Jennifer Prediger) is out, or at his absent brother’s place. Though there’s mutual affection involved, the relationship seems primarily about uncomplicated sex for Eric, while for Diana it’s obviously filling an emotional void. Departing from the teacher-student dynamic, she appears to relish letting him take the upper hand.
She is observed keeping her colleagues at a distance, and she shuts down the moment her brother (Jonny Mars) comes to town and tries to discuss their mother’s onset of dementia. When Sophia takes her to a party, she can’t get away fast enough, constantly checking her phone for texts from Eric or staring dreamily at his Facebook photos.
When a minor scandal ripples through the school over the circulation of a naked phone-cam image of a female freshman, Diana nervously insists that Eric delete a topless photo of herself that she sent him. Apprehension over the potentially disastrous professional outcome if they were to be discovered starts intruding more and more on her enjoyment of their time together. When Eric takes her to his family’s ranch house for a weekend and the foreman (Donald Hampton) turns up, almost catching her there, Diana suggests they take a breather.
Fidell deserves credit for avoiding predictable paths, particularly in Diana’s inevitable unraveling. Burdge’s performance progressively evolves into a tangle of raw, exposed nerves as she struggles to go cold turkey on Eric, with Sofi Marshall’s editing mirroring her agitated state and erratic behavior. McOmber’s chilly score also is used effectively. In a film shot in predominantly natural light, with frequent murky nighttime scenes, the unerring control of mood and atmosphere is impressive.
Newcomer Brittain, whose only previous experience was in a college student film, is appealingly loose and unselfconscious onscreen. He makes Eric easygoing, gregarious and mildly cocky without ever veering into obnoxiousness, backing away abruptly when Diana starts going off the rails.
Burdge manages to keep her bruised performance mostly contained while also holding nothing back. Echoing the way Fidell skips past the overtures that began the affair, the film ends just as the awful fallout is beginning. A Teacher will no doubt be too dour for some, but others will find it hard to look away from this head-on exploration of a woman escaping the demands of adult life by surrendering to inappropriate passion.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Cast: Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain, Jennifer Prediger, Julie Dell Phillips, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Donald Hampton
Production company: Flaneur Films
Director-screenwriter: Hannah Fidell
Producers: Kim Sherman, Hannah Fidell
Director of photography: Andrew Droz Palermo
Production designer: Elana Farley
Music: Brian McOmber
Costume designer: Lanie Overton
Editor: Sofi Marshall
Sales: ICM Partners
No rating, 75 minutes.
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