We seem to be having a moment of cultural confusion about teacher-on-student sex. Many — I would even venture most — of us are pretty sure that grown-ass people should not be having sex with teenagers. Sadly, the dissenters are all judges and newspaper columnists. The Washington Post, just as an example, published an op-ed over the weekend in which someone opined that she didn’t think it was such a big deal for teachers to sleep with students. In a particularly unfortunate choice, she chose to venture that opinion in the context of last week’s horrifying case of a man sentenced to just 30 days (though it looks like that will be extended) in the rape of his 14-year-old student, who later committed suicide. To support her view that the controversy was overblown, she made appeals to authority like, “I’ve been a 14-year-old girl, and so have all of my female friends.” Spoiler: that op-ed isn’t very good. Like most mealymouthed pieces of its kind, it says it wants to introduce nuance, but it’s not about careful analysis of the power dynamics at hand. It’s about spitting out a thesis as quickly and simply and “convincingly” as possible. Someone interested in nuance doesn’t usually write a newspaper column. Instead, they make a work of art that respects the depth of the experience at hand. And usually, when they do that, they don’t come out with the conclusion that a certain kind of behavior is no big deal, because the function of drama is usually to highlight that it’s quite a big deal indeed.
For example: I’m grateful for A Teacher‘s quiet entry into the fray this week. It’s the first feature by newcomer Hannah Fidell. A small festival hit, A Teacher is anchored by the central performance of Lindsay Burdge as a teacher engaged in an inappropriate relationship, indeed in many jurisdictions a statutory rape, of a student in her classes. The relationship is more symptom than cause of her distress; she is dealing, or rather not dealing, with her mother’s illness by way of this spectacularly ill-advised relationship.
It’s not a direct analogue to the cases that bring on the op-eds, but A Teacher does not pretend that the situation it depicts is a pretty one, either. There are filmmakers who would dramatize this in such a way as to resist judgment of their protagonist. Fidell is not one of them, not in the strict sense. Throughout the movie, Diana (Burdge) is in the process of unraveling. There is no question, at any point, that Diana should not be doing what she’s doing. The consequences are what you’d expect; the audience is not thrown for a loop.
There is a certain freedom involved in keeping the plot simple. It leaves the actors a lot of space to shade in their characters. Burdge’s Diana is thus not a monster, per se, in the sense that she is not a caricature. She is a person acting in an extremely selfish manner, and she takes greater and greater risks that are pretty hard to understand from a removed perspective. Film critics don’t seem to like it that she has little motive beyond personal gratification. At The New Yorker, for example, Richard Brody complains that “the script offers neither verbal illuminations nor practical insights, neither psychology nor morality, and the plot is little more than the reportorial backstory to a tabloid headline.” Which, I think, is true. But the fact is, I am not sure that every person who self-destructs has a firm grasp on their self-destruction, and my read on Diana is that she herself is not sure what illuminations or insights her behavior should yield to anyone, including herself. And there are some kind of disquieting insights in that observation alone, particularly in a frame, as here, of a filmmaker who in no way wants to say that Diana doesn’t deserve what she gets.
A Teacher is not perfect, of course. It is one of these films that yields more questions than answers. The obliqueness of Diana’s backstory occasionally feels like neglectful rather than chosen. Burdge is directed to spend a lot of time staring at her phone. The visuals are dark and shadowy in a way that does not always convey mood so much as make you wonder when you’ll be able to see what’s going on. But it’s a film that made me long to see more from Fidell, perhaps on a more fleshed out script. Others would do well to learn from her restraint and caution and carefulness.