Sunday, April 19, 2015

Regional Review: A Teacher

Austin Filmmaker Hannah Fidell's technical and thematic maturity doesn't seem to fit her young age (now only 28)..... especially since the salacious material in her feature length debut "A Teacher" is an easily untranslatable subject. But, she makes it work and work beautifully, almost peeling back the skin of her lead character Diana (Lindsay Burdge) with her camera and creating images that feel like they're projecting out of her increasingly crumbling sense of mind. As the thirty-something teacher hopelessly (and physically) unquenched by her relationship with teenage student Eric (Will Brittain), it'd be easy to dismiss "A Teacher" without seeing it for fear of something close to 'erotica-lite'. After all, Jennifer Lopez recently bombed with "The Boy Next Door", so scandalous older woman-student diversions aren't the most respected genres out there. Yet it's not necessarily the material that's stunning about Fidell's film. Although it is sexually frank and continually frames its May-December couple in no nonsense moments of intimacy and grown up playfulness, "A Teacher" is only the jumping off point for something more troubling, which comes into effect through the naturalistic and nuanced performance of Burdge as she reveals a woman running from some whispered emotional vacancies in her life and using her taboo attraction to mask the scars of something deeper.

Employing a mixture of over-the-shoulder hand held shots (as Fidell admitted in an interview with "Filmmaker" magazine that she cribbed from watching all the Dardenne Brothers films) and glacial tracking moves, the overall mood of "A Teacher" is haunting and assured. As Diana's mental state and ability to control the passion confusedly swirling inside her escalates, Fidell's camera sinks closer and more unstable. If anything, Fidell's film belongs in the new wave category of young directors taking the cinema of Michael Haneke a step further and adding their own millennial generation spin. Antonio Campus ("Afterschool" and "Simon Killer"), Sean Durkin ("Marcy May Marlene") and Gerardo Naranjo ("Miss Bala") all tackle uncomfortable subjects head-on, refusing to flinch and utilizing their cameras as if we were watching surveillance footage, daring us to look away at the abhorred themes of youthful dispassion and mental insecurity. Even though we're not dealing with violent Mexican drug cartels or sadistic teen murderers with "A Teacher", its story is equally unsettling in the bland, cumulative ways it reveals the slow dissolve of a fragile mind. The moment teacher Diana (in school dance chaperon mode) hopelessly and jealously stares at a female student in the bathroom mirror simply because she went to the dance as young Eric's age appropriate date, we know the damage is irreparable. Like her entire performance, it's there in the eyes and guarded body language of actress Burdge.

Not a native Texan, Fidell's "A Teacher" does take place in Austin, Texas. Largely indistinguishable (except for a few out-of-focus I-35 shots with downtown looming in the distance), the film does detour into the hill country when Diana and Eric steal away to a ranch in the country. The freedom provided by its sun-drenched country soon becomes troubling. They may feel secluded, but the owner of the ranch (who alludes to knowing Eric but more specifically his father) unexpectedly drops in and almost busts the two together. Serving as the sensible wake-up call to Diana, she suggests the two cool their relationship for a while, which is easier said than done on her part. The rest of the film remains couched in numbing suburbia.... neighborhoods of pleasant looking houses and drab, fluorescent school hallways, but there is that wonderful sense of vastness represented by the ranch. Like Texas itself, "A Teacher" explores the highs and lows of this state's erratic landscapes.

With her next film already completed and receiving good word of mouth at this year's South by Southwest Festival, its fairly easy to say Hannah Fidell has arrived. I hope she continues her competent explorations of both Texas and the complex dynamics of the people who inhabit it.

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