“A Teacher,” premiering Sunday as part of the Sundance Film Festival, explores the tabloid-ready story of a female high school teacher engaging in an affair with a male student. Rather than a steamy exploitation picture or overwrought melodrama, writer-director Hannah Fidell's film is a taught, closely observed psychological tale.
Posters for the film — showing the back of a woman’s head with a tight mess of hair coming undone — capture its essence: the exploration of an emotional unraveling.
Starring Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain as the teacher and student, the film begins with their affair already in motion, pushing forward just to the brink of it falling apart. The film was shot by rising indie cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and has a haunting, propulsive score by Brian McOmber, formerly with the band Dirty Projectors, with both the look and sound of it making “A Teacher” seem bigger and more ambitious than its limited means.
Fidell, 27, has a master’s degree in media studies and initially planned to go into academia. But after a trip to the South by Southwest film festival in 2009, she felt inspired to make movies herself. Fidell and Burdge previously collaborated on the short feature “We’re Glad You’re Here” and after Fidell proposed the idea of “A Teacher,” the pair worked on crafting the character together, with Fidell writing the script.
In a phone interview from New York City before the start of the festival, Fidell noted that the main challenge in writing was “figuring out how to create a character that was doing something that would be considered wrong, that the audience couldn’t totally relate to, but somehow forcing the audience to relate in some way, to stay with the story. I wanted people to be able to see a bit of themselves in her, that they could make the same mistakes she could.”
Burdge, 28, who grew up in Los Angeles but now lives in New York City, immediately connected in the same way with this potentially off-putting story. Fidell and Burdge began researching these sorts of student-teacher stories together, exploring the constant of young female teachers who themselves are not yet fully formed emotionally.
“I think we were both interested in transgressive relationships, and I think the thing we both thought was ‘I could absolutely see this happening to me,’ ” Burdge said. “Not that we’re going to break the law, but we had a lot of compassion for these women. She’s torn within herself over the ethics of it and what to her feels so right.”
Information is at something of a premium throughout the film, as bits and pieces of the teacher’s own story come to light, putting her actions into a bigger picture. The decisions of what to explain and when were among the trickiest parts of the process in crafting the film.
“I knew if we gave more away it would be easier to say, ‘Oh, she’s having this affair because she doesn’t have a good relationship with her family,’ or just the obvious outs for people to make assumptions about her,” said Fidell. “I just wanted her to be more complex than that and sometimes to be complex, less is more.”
“I don’t think we ever say that she’s not doing something wrong,” added Burdge of the film’s hands-off, nonjudgmental approach to her character. “Also, it’s not so pretty where she ends up. By the end of it, it’s clear she has some stuff to work out, she has some issues.”
In a few screenings before the film’s premiere, Fidell noted that she had been struck by how responses to the film seem to split along gender lines, with women relating more to the main character’s internal struggle, while men have found her more plain crazy or stay hung up on the salacious “Hot for Teacher” scenario. Those kind of provocative ambiguities were just what she had set out to explore.
“I realized those were the kinds of stories I personally like watching,” Fidell said, “so why not make a movie I would want to see?”
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