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FX on Hulu's A Teacher is an intensive, immersive study of how abuse works and the intimate damage it can wreak

  • However, filmmaker Hannah Fidell's 10-episode TV series adaptation of her 2013 film about a high school teacher's relationship with her student, starring Kate Mara and Nick Robinson, "stands on far more tenuous ground" when looking at episodes individually, says Caroline Framke. "In its original form, Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher was a 2013 film that began with Claire and Eric meeting and ended with their secret getting out," says Framke. "As a television show, Fidell and directors like herself, Gillian Robespierre and Andrew Neel get the opportunity to expand the timeline and linger on moments that a movie might’ve necessarily had to breeze by in the interest of time management. Robinson — whose last pleasantly bland teen role in Love, Simon required a very different set of skills than this one — does a deft job of balancing Eric’s outward confidence with his simmering sensitivity. And though Mara struggles in the beginning to play Claire’s particular combination of chilly remove and fragile nerves, she becomes much more effective as Claire finally dissolves. Though it was at first tempting to say that A Teacher should’ve stuck to a feature film length rather than expanded into a limited series, the complete picture makes clear why fleshing the story out is so valuable. Having the space to illustrate not just the abuse itself, but its complex aftermath, makes the series a uniquely detailed examination of abuse that’s otherwise afforded very little cultural introspection. The back half of the season especially explores Eric’s confusion and shame as he faces a lifetime of people seeing him as either a helpless victim or a swaggering legend."

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    • A Teacher feels more icky than insightful: The FX on Hulu series is "certainly disturbing, depicting a sexual relationship between a high school teacher and a student in unprecedentedly graphic detail for a TV series," says Dave Nemetz. "(It’s so nerve-wracking to watch unfold, it’s almost like a horror movie at times.) But it also badly fumbles its execution, with a fundamentally wrongheaded approach to the central relationship that often left me yelling, 'What are you doing???' at the TV… and not just at the characters....It’s all shot handsomely, with a cool soundtrack — Hannah Fidell writes and directs several episodes, based on her 2013 indie film — but the tone is, if anything, too romantic. A Teacher plays too often like a star-crossed love story instead of what it is: a crime, an act of abuse and a massive breach of ethics."
    • Filmmaker Hannah Fidell takes her perception of TV as "movies, but longer" too literally: "When a filmmaker newly arrived to television perceives the medium as 'movies, but longer,' it typically means they don’t know or care about how to structure individual episodes, or why that matters," says Alan Sepinwall. '(Though in some cases, as with Luca Guadgnino and We Are Who We Are, those who talk the '10-hour movie' talk somehow walk the episodic walk.) With FX on Hulu’s A Teacher, however, the concept becomes quite literal — and not very effective. The 10-part limited series is Hannah Fidell’s adaptation of her own 2013 indie film about an affair between a high school senior and his English teacher. The film runs a scant 75 minutes, the TV version more than three times that. I haven’t seen the film (which is also streaming on Hulu, as well as Prime Video), but this take on the material consistently makes poor use of the extended time, wasting two strong lead performances by Kate Mara and Nick Robinson with a narrative approach that alternately feels labored and rushed."
    • To Fidell’s credit, this A Teacher isn’t a stretched-out “five-hour movie” of her original vision: A Teacher is a "miniseries that feels much more fleshed-out and thought-through, with surprisingly little overlap between the two projects," says Inkoo Kang. "That the #MeToo reckoning took place between the film and the TV series is relevant here; the later work is much more interested in the ways abuse doesn’t always feel like abuse to either the perpetrator or the victim. It can feel consensual. It can even feel like love."
    • A Teacher rarely feels like a cautionary tale, despite on-screen "grooming" warnings: "Most of the time it plays like a tragic love story in emo-prairie style, and it has the look and rhythms of a tastefully maudlin indie film," says Mike Hale. "Which makes sense since Fidell expanded it from her 2013 film of the same title. Not making Claire an obvious monster might be a brave choice post-#MeToo, but Fidell hasn’t made her anything else that’s particularly interesting or revealing. There are familiar dots for us to connect — an alcoholic father (M.C. Gainey), a pusillanimous husband (Ashley Zukerman) who spends their savings on musical equipment — but Claire’s infatuation with Eric just seems to materialize, a product of bodily chemistry. Mara, who projects sanity and a biting intelligence, makes Claire’s bad choices believable as they happen, and perhaps the idea is that they could happen to anyone. But that’s not a very dramatic idea."
    • A Teacher sets the viewer up on a suggestive and captivating ride with the protagonists, and then affectively turns on both of them: "The surreptitious thrill of secretive flirting and texting, and keeping a secret from the world—the filmmakers excel at the chase and making A Teacher feel intoxicating with ideas of thirst and dangerously indecorous longing (a soundtrack of dreamy indie-pop helps)," says Rodrigo Perez. "If that sounds too alarmingly enthusiastic, that’s because the show is both disconcertingly crafted, and much stronger in its first half. The shows sets the viewer up on a suggestive and captivating ride with the protagonists, and then affectively turns on both of them, suddenly (and yes, this is unsettling to admit and experience as a viewer). But then reality has to strike when boundaries are crossed. And it almost becomes the show’s unintentional jarring wet blanket, like when the harsh lights go up at a bar at closing time, and the entire once attractive situation feels starkly unpleasant. Yes, the relationship is alarming, immoral, and criminal from the beginning but the show is set up to convincingly seduce you as much as Eric’s been seduced by Claire (and to be fair, vice versa). Sh*t goes sideways, as it should, but then A Teacher goes at least three episodes past where most stories would end."
    • A key participant in A Teacher is the audience, who becomes somewhat complicit in the affair: "In the early episodes, Claire hardly appears to be a predator," says Kevin Fallon. "Their relationship seems organic. As it looks like they fall in love, you root for things to work out. You may even swoon a bit. The sex scenes might turn you on, as sex scenes tend to do. But through it all, you’re nagged by guilt; your head knows that what you’re watching is an unethical and illegal act."
    • What A Teacher does well is convey the fantasies of a student-teacher relationship — without ever losing sight of how damaging their relationship is: "It’s a fine needle to thread, but first time showrunner Hannah Fidell—who developed the FX show from her 2013 film of the same name—manages to balance the moving parts with remarkable skill. The story seems to be adapting to our shifting discourse in real time," says Sonia Saraiya. "A Teacher works especially well because its episodes are compact glimpses into Claire and Eric’s relationship. The limited series toys with the viewer’s embarrassment, or conversely, their voyeurism—but because the episodes come and go so quickly, even its inevitable sex scenes never get the chance to become gratuitous. A Teacher’s deceptively light touch ends up serving as a stylistic metaphor for the relationship itself, which exists at the margins of both characters’ lives, and by its very nature leaves both wanting more."
    • A Teacher should've been more scandalous: "The year 2020 is an odd one in which to explore the sexual relationship between a high school English teacher and her 17-year-old male student," says Ryan Lattanzio. "If the teacher were a man and the student a girl, a show like A Teacher would not happen now. As it is, however, Hannah Fidell’s new series for FX on Hulu is tepid, not explosive. Strong performances from leads Kate Mara and Nick Robinson aren’t enough to propel this middling drama, and what could have been a controversial and deeply disturbing episodic is a safely played affair across 10 installments. At less than 30 minutes a pop, however, it’s addictive as a bag of chips you can’t stop eating because it’s there. The central problems with A Teacher (based on Fidell’s 2013 more powerfully austere film) are quick to reveal themselves. There’s little sexual tension between Claire (Mara), an educator listless in her marriage, and Eric (Robinson), a corn-fed, straight-A student who lives with his single mother in Austin. The dynamic of grooming and the violation of power endemic to a teacher-student relationship should be harrowing, squeamish stuff, but the content advisory warning that introduces every episode is an illicit promise it doesn’t keep."
    • Hannah Fidell offers one of the more worthwhile film-to-TV adaptations: "The series creator doesn’t simply revisit her 2013 film of the same name for this 10-part drama, stretching her previous character study until it’s threadbare—a common trap for similar expansions from feature length to full seasons," says Danette Chavez. "Fidell reimagines it as a more pointed story of abuse and survival, fortified by an excellent cast and insights gleaned from the push for greater accountability in the last several years, including Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement." She adds: "The series leaves no doubt that Claire is a predator, while also avoiding an overwrought ending or a neat resolution."
    • A Teacher is designed to perplex and sow discomfort: "Real-life examples are understood in far more sordid terms and yet still packaged as sordid sideshows, exemplified by the very famous tabloid drama surrounding the story of the late Mary Kay Letourneau and her relationship with her sixth grade student Vili Fualaau, who she went on to marry. Because of this it may be easy to peg a show like A Teacher as a lurid portrayal of some misunderstood romance," says Melanie McFarland. "Certainly the opening episodes seem to telegraph that treatment. Keep watching and you'll soon comprehend that what series creator Hannah Fidell is placing the viewer inside is an approximation of the precarious nature of trauma, particularly the variety where the victim doesn't realize they're being exploited . . . and the abuser can't bring themselves to admit they're preying on a susceptible person."
    • A Teacher will lodge yourself in your mind and stay there: "In lean, half-hour episodes, the first three of which will debut Nov. 10 on Hulu, the series functions as a haunting thought experiment for a culture whose collective understanding of sexual misconduct has evolved quickly over the past three years," says Judy Berman. "Yes, some industries have been purging themselves of their Kevin Spaceys and Matt Lauers. Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly and Bill Cosby are in prison. Concepts once mocked as feminist hysteria, from rape culture to affirmative consent, have gone mainstream. Yet A Teacher shines light on areas of the Me Too discourse that remain murky. What if the criminal happens to be a tiny, pretty woman and her ostensible victim is a strapping male athlete? What if he’s past the age of consent and about to turn 18? What if he kisses her first? What if she’s not a master manipulator but an emotional wreck? What if they’re in love?"
    • Before agreeing to A Teacher, Nick Robinson vowed to stop playing high school students: But "this one felt very different to me,” says the 25-year-old actor. “It was not set solely in high school and the subject matter just felt much more mature than the typical high school story. It was a challenge. I thought the role was challenging. The story itself I felt was going to hopefully challenge audiences.”
    • Kate Mara was drawn to A Teacher because it showed consequences: "It was very important to me," she says. "I wanted to make sure that everything about the show was about the consequences as well. So that was a huge selling point for me when Hannah was telling me what her idea for the season was. And I think it’s so important to show the lasting consequences of such a predatory relationship, which happens much more frequently than I think anyone would expect it to."

    TOPICS: A Teacher, FX on Hulu, Hannah Fidell, Kate Mara, Nick Robinson




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