Lindsay Burdge, who plays the title role in A Teacher, has thick, arced eyebrows and a rounded jaw line that ends in a fist-shaped chin; her face looks like a bow pulled tight, as though the mole between her brows were an arrowhead waiting for a target. Much of the movie—in which Burdge carries on an affair with one of her high-school English students—plays off of this tensed expression. However, the moment of release never comes.
Because contemporary indies tend to overvalue broad generational statements, A Teacher—which is candid, character focused, and only 75 minutes long—initially feels like a breath of fresh air. (The movie draws inevitable comparisons to the recent The Lifeguard, which is also about a female ephebophile.) Very little time is wasted on exposition; when the movie starts, Burdge is already meeting for regular trysts with teenager Will Brittain. She sends him flirty Facebook messages and nude selfies. One sequence sums up her erotic fixations: After telling Brittain about how she used to have sex in her boyfriend’s car when she was his age, Burdge returns home to stare at his semen stain on her dress. Teenage sex, illicit and messy, represents an escape from her single adulthood.
Writer-director Hannah Fidell works in a style that’s arty but simple: naturalistic lighting, camera movement that always follows character movement, and a modernist score (by Brian McOmber, formerly of Dirty Projectors) that conveys dread without ever suggesting outright horror. Fidell’s use of choppy, Wong Kar Wai-style slow motion seems incongruous at first, but eventually becomes an effective expression of Burdge’s mental state—time sputtering like a bad motor.
Despite its brevity, A Teacher is paced like a 90- or 100-minute movie; a third act is foreshadowed throughout, and its absence is a deliberate move on Fidell’s part. This creates a slight problem: By continually deferring dramatic tension, the filmmaker puts more weight on the movie’s closing scenes—which are abrupt but true to life—than they can handle.