Sprocket Holes is an irregular column focused on small release films either playing limited engagements in major cities or available on VOD. As well as appreciating indies on the fringes of the festival circuit, it also takes a second look at under the radar, underappreciated, unheard of films that have slipped through the celluloid cracks.
Beneath the artificial layers of lighthearted whimsy and lovelorn sheepishness found in TV veteran Craig Zisk's feature film debut The English Teacher, there's a curdling belittlement that spoils like a rotten egg. Though to be fair, the artificial layers are caked on like tasteless butter to begin with.
When Julianne Moore's middle-aged, bespectacled waif of a schoolteacher makes a couple of arguably questionable and ill-advised life choices, apparently all bets are off. The question for screenwriters Dan and Stacy Chariton should have then been, 'how can we make a lively backstage romantic comedy of age-inappropriate errors?' Instead they asked themselves 'what can we do to put our so-called heroine Linda Sinclair, (and by extension Julianne Moore), through the wringer', because clearly she deserves it.
Films with such fundamentally wrong-headed intentions fill me with a cloudy rage that can be difficult to parse through. With cloyingly conceitedness, The English Teacher's one true desire is to sitcom its way into people's hearts. There are plenty of ways to do that without treating the main character so condescendingly it negates the entire film but that's just what Zisk does. Maybe if the film had satirical aspirations, subversive undertones or anything like an underlying purpose, an artistic case could be made. There are certainly many great films that do not take their characters' very serious plight seriously, but The English Teacher hangs in zero gravity; it isn't trying to say or do anything other than take blind stabs at manufactured pleasantry.
The condescension starts right out the gate as a Regency-evoking elderly woman narrates this substandard tale of small-town shenanigans. Our gimmicky narrator, who is heard precisely three times, paints a picture of Linda's life as satisfying but ultimately tragic and hopeless because she's destined for spinsterhood. The patronizing tone is all but evident in these first scenes. The British narrator takes the perspective away from Linda in her own narrative, introducing her as someone we are immediately meant to feel sorry for. As groceries for one are scanned, yet another first date goes poorly, and lonely Linda trudges on reading books and teaching class, we are somehow meant to sigh; 'poor thing'.
One fateful night, Linda mistakenly pepper sprays Jason (Michael Angarano), a former student who recently moved back to Kingston after graduating from the NYU dramatic arts program and failing to get his play produced in New York. His father Tom (Greg Kinnear) wants Jason to go to law school and so he plans to quit writing and resign himself to his future. His unproduced play is called The Chrysalis, and after offering to read it, Linda is awed by its brilliance. Nathan Lane's high school drama teacher Dr. Kapinas (referred to by students as "Kapenis"), reacts to the play as the plot requires, wanting to stage it as their next production immediately after reading, and once Jason is hesitantly onboard, all systems are go. Here the romantic entanglements start between the unadorned Moore, ingénue student Lilly Collins, the conflicted, moody playwright Angarano and the stuck-up Kinnear. Now The English Teacher goes from sugary sedateness with some nicely played scenes between Moore and Angarano, to capital punishment comeuppance.
The story shows no interest in Linda's age-difference-be-damned feelings or her obvious connection with Jason’s father, only the rat's nest scenario in which Linda's name gets dragged through the mud. Only then - only when she's hit rock bottom - can she earn her chance at love. Linda has to lose everything as each and every character slings unconscionable verbal abuse her way. Meekly and silently accepting this as somehow deserved, she then has to and grovel for forgiveness for (gasp) having desires and making a couple of poor judgments. And while her initial actions are treated as the most damnable, her real flaw lies in the way she handles the aftermath.
Only one character ever apologizes to Linda with nobody else ever having to answer for the way they treat her over the course of the film. Both screenwriters and director are guilty of spending half the film doling out punishment loaded with latent, sexist hypocrisy and dressing it up as humble comedic blunder. Nasty characters do nasty things to the underserving all the time in film (as in life), but there's a huge difference between purposeful story-driven themes, character-driven behaviour, and whatever you might call this.
At one point, Lilly Collins' character Halle even calls out the double standard the filmmakers actively encourage before resigning herself to an 'it is what it is' shrug as Linda preaches the importance of ladies sticking together (this only minutes before a development that has every female acting like a possessive maniac).
The vanilla pudding of The English Teacher covers up a mean-spirited undertone that never attempts to justify itself, turning a problematic romantic comedy with some potential into an unwarranted bullying contest.
Tickets for Tribeca performances of The English Teacher this weekend can be purchased here.
Alternatively, the film is available to download through the US iTunes store.