At its best, streaming video offers the potential for discovery — the chance to track down and reappraise a hidden gem which you’d never have seen otherwise. For the month of August, I’ll be counting down movies that were panned by critics when they were originally released, and arguing that they’re actually worth a second look.
Hannah Fidell’s unsettling psychodramaA Teacher follows Diana — a young high school English teacher in suburban Texas — as she engages in a passionate and destructive affair with one of her students. It’s a premise designed to make viewers squeamish, but A Teacher is less concerned with the ethics of the affair than with its psychological impact on its fragile protagonist.
Lindsay Burdge turns in a fascinatingly icy performance as Diana — a woman who barely manages to cover up her deep, fundamental instability as she goes about her day-to-day life. Her affair with Eric, a charismatic student, is part of a larger obsession with remaining in a state of arrested development. Diana is well aware of the danger he presents to her life and career, but she can’t resist indulging in the only part of her life that brings her any joy — even as the relationship begins to spin towards mutual destruction.
At just 75 minutes, A Teacher is a spare, tightly focused character study. We never learn how Diana and Eric began their affair, and the movie wisely spends very little time on anyone apart from the two leads. (If anything, writer/director Hannah Fidell could have cut even more; the sole scene that explores Diana’s troubled relationship with her family is a misstep, over-explaining something that would be better left implied.) But in general, the film’s ambiguities are moody and effective. Fidell shoots in a series of murky, claustrophobic close-ups that emphasize how insular and dangerous Diana’s world has become.
A Teacher earned just 32 percent positive reviews at aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with critics dismissing it as “lifeless” and “ultimately hollow.” I understand why some would be frustrated that the film avoids digging into the depths and motivations of its characters, but I’d argue that’s one of A Teacher's secret strengths. Much of the film's nervy energy comes from being forced to guess at the true feelings of both Diana and Eric — and what those feelings might eventually lead them to do.
Your weekly streaming recommendation: A Teacher