Colin Stetson’s wildly inventive saxophone compositions help bring out the unyielding emotional undercurrents of Alexandre Moors’s haunting Blue Caprice, and his music serves a similar purpose in a far more minor way in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher. As Diana (Lindsay Burdge) takes an early morning run in her Austin suburb before heading to her titular job at the local high school, Stetson’s itchy avant-garde jazz gives a sense of mysterious inner complications beyond the young woman’s shy demeanor, a sense of the storm of confusion and desire that’s gathered in her since taking one of her students, Eric (Will Brittain), as her lover. It’s a rare moment when this alluringly shot and thoroughly safe debut feels as if it’s venturing into the insidious terrain that the film’s tabloid-ready story suggests.
Fidell depicts the affair in dark tones, shadow-heavy rooms with very intimate lighting, and at first, there’s a certain seductive quality to the beautifully blocked compositions. The images often speak directly to Diana’s tendency to obstruct or merely ignore parts of her persona, especially those involving sex, intimacy, and age, but the filmmaker also shows timidity similar to her central character. The film conveys its tawdry story like whispered gossip, but told with a stuffy guardedness that weakens the narrative’s tension and limits its already minor scope. Diana’s interactions with Eric are intensely effective, but her other interactions do nothing but mildly justify her increasingly obsessive relationship with Eric through intimation. Her only real conversation with men her own age is a run-in with a duo of bro-dogs, and her best friend (and roommate) has obnoxiously loud hook-ups while drunk. A tryst with a popular student, with all the privacy and thrill promised, seems not only romantic, but also utterly reasonable.
A Teacher is a mood piece masquerading as a character study. On these terms it’s a minor success, but there are brief moments that suggest something fuller and a bit more daring, through canny framing and some admirable underplaying in the main performances. For the most part, however, we’re only allowed an insufficient glimpse of the anxiousness and curiosity that drive these creatures, a tactic which feels suspiciously like hesitance masquerading as enigma.