Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

David Dastmalchian in Teacher
"The viewer easily becomes complicit, caught up in actions which, on reflection, are clearly inappropriate."

In recent years there has been much discussion online of Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance and the ethics of Nazi-punching. How should we handle violent people in our midst without becoming unduly violent ourselves? Adam Dick's sensitive debut film condenses such thinking into a study of an everyday situation with the potential to escalate into something horrific. James (David Dastmalchian) is a devoted English teacher going through a difficult divorce. When he realises that two of the young people in his class are being mercilessly bullied, he he gradually loses control of his emotions, recalling his own unhappy childhood experiences and starting down a very dark path.

Playing out at times like a polite, middle-class version of Taxi Driver, this is a film that shows admirable restraint in its depiction of mental disintegration and violence. If anything, this quiet approach enhances its impact. The first half focuses heavily on the bullying itself but even at this stage the moral landscape is complicated, with young victim Preston (Matthew Garry) exhibiting a mean streak as he tries to take revenge on Tim (Curtis Edward Jackson), one of the boys who is mistreating him. Jackson is one of the standouts of the film, really delivering in a crucial scene where we glimpse the real boy beneath the mask of toughness as the film begins to turn.

Copy picture

As Tim's successful and ambitious father, Kevin Pollak adds weight to the film, never less than convincing when intimidating the much taller James. The interactions they have when discussing Tim's behaviour take the bullying theme beyond the classroom itself and highlight the inadequacy of any simple 'it gets better' approach to such problems. The film explores expressions of masculinity and the way that homophobic insults are used to deride behaviour seen as insufficiently tough, and looks at what it does to men to try to compete or establish authority within that space. The women in the film see things differently but - with the possible exception of a fellow teacher who goes on a date with James - seem equally incapable of dealing with aggression in any effective way other than by avoiding it.

The underlying tragedy of all this is that nobody really seems happy, but Dick's film has energy nevertheless and doesn't just wallow in misery. Whilst the class studies The Merchant Of Venice and talks about the difficult of distinguishing heroes and villains, James maintains a sort of naive optimism that makes him easy to like, one of those teachers who genuinely seems to be there for kids who are ready to make the effort. Even when things change it's easy to root for him because he clearly has his heart in the right place, so it can take a moment to realise how far off course he's going. The viewer easily becomes complicit, caught up in actions which, on reflection, are clearly inappropriate.

Although Teacher never quite overcomes the limitations of its small budget, it's a confidently handled first feature. Its cast, made up of the kind of actors who form the backbone of many a US drama without ever getting the showier work that brings them to audience attention, are perfectly in tune with one another, and Dastmalchian, who rarely gets a leading role, lets James' resentment simmer for a long time before coming to the boil. By the time it does so much has been revealed that it's hard to determine what's really at the root of it all in any of the players, more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2019
Share this with others on...
Teacher packshot
A teacher under pressure goes to extreme lengths to try to protect young people in his class from bullying.

Director: Adam Dick

Writer: Adam Dick

Starring: David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, John Hoogenakker, Helen Joo Lee

Year: 2019

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


Search database:

Related Articles:

A dangerous lesson