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'A Teacher' portrays a relationship with a student as amour fou

In "A Teacher," Lindsay Burdge plays a woman having sex with her high school-aged student, a crime portrayed with a lack of judgment.

Lindsay Burdge plays a woman having sex with one of her high school students. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories Lindsay Burdge plays a woman having sex with one of her high school students.
Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

‘A Teacher’
Director: Hannah Fidell
Stars: Lindsay Burdge, Will Brittain
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Though she’s a high school teacher engaged in a passionate love affair with one of her students, Diana (Lindsay Burdge) doesn’t seem that odd. She begins each day with a run. She lugs a travel mug filled with coffee everywhere. She lunches on salad in the break room. She’s cool but firm in class. When she gets a text from her literal boy toy — laid-back and charismatic teen Eric (Will Brittain) — while out with a friend, she makes hiding it seem natural and playful. Even the actual romance isn’t treated like tabloid sleaze. Ignoring the ethics and age difference, Diana and Eric could almost pass as a normal couple, two people clearly in love who enjoy each other’s company and can’t seem to think straight when not together.

Writer/director Hannah Fidell reserves judgment on Diana’s crimes, even empathizes with her. It exists outside the world of such real-life scandals and inside Diana’s mind. While Eric is a precocious senior, Diana toggles between adult mode and an immature state. The latter eventually starts to win out, particularly once the threat of being caught starts to become real. It’s more classically doomed romance than ripped-from-the-headlines shocker, with a first half devoted to the euphoria of love followed by the devastating, maddening comedown when it falls apart.

Ironically, because it avoids exploiting real-life trends, it has more to tell us about its perpetrators. Diana’s backstory is never elaborated upon, though she’s estranged from her family for reasons never explained and has few friends outside her roommate (with whom she seems to be chummy). But she feels removed from the world, lonely, glomming onto Eric not because of a specified secret reason that will be revealed, but because she feels what all lovers do: a connection that makes her feel safe, calm and adored.

Frankly, even the few suggested explanations of her behvaior are a bit much. Fidell’s theory — that whatever’s motivating those into young lovers, it’s still a case of amour fou — can’t help but feel increasingly pat, even incurious. The filmmaking sometimes goes too far, too, highlighting Diana’s isolation by showing her swallowed up in dark rooms.

Even with such flourishes, it’s effectively made, told in exquisitely composed cinemascope frames that are either wide open spaces or prisons. Both leads are excellent: Brittain is always either more or less mature than he seems, while Burdge is the kind of person who’s evasive but still friendly. Her descent into madness may win her awards, but the real showpieces are scenes where she’s struggling to protect her roiling feelings from a world that would destroy her if they came out.

 
 
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