By the end of any film festival, the dedicated viewer will begin to lose track of everything that she has seen: the movies begin to blend together, forming strange, imaginary patterns and echoing each other in ways that seem somehow deliberate. Certain themes emerge: I saw, for instance, an outrageous number of films that take place in wintertime Canada or New England. And where movies that are simply mediocre acquire the taint of the dreadful, and awful movies become extra despicable, the diamonds in the rough feel like manna from heaven.
Which is all to say that I’m not really sure whether The English Teacher is quite as delightful as I found it, but nevertheless: I found it enormously delightful. The first feature film from Craig Zisk, a veteran director and producer of such television shows as Weeds and United States of Tara, The English Teacher stars Julianne Moore as Linda Sinclair, an earnest, middle-aged high school English teacher who’s never married as a result of the outsized romantic ideas she’s gotten about life from the classic novels she’s read obsessively since childhood — and, from the montage sequence chronicling her various romantic debacles, due to the truly appalling caliber of single men in the small Pennsylvania town where she lives. Still, she seems happy with her life, and fulfilled by her job: her life is not a bad one; it’s just not especially exciting, either.
In walks Jason Sherwood (the charming Michael Angarano), an ex-student in his mid-twenties who’s returned home after failing to get his thesis play (the product of the NYU dramatic writing program, a fact pointed out repeatedly and with much ado by everybody but Jason himself) produced in New York. He runs into Ms. Sinclair at an ATM late at night; she douses his eyes with pepper spray. In the aftermath of this less-than-auspicious reunion, she finds out that he’s now planning on going to law school — his domineering father’s idea, he says, not his own — and offers to read the play. So moved by it that she can’t stop crying, she convinces him to let the school’s drama teacher, Mr. Kapinas (Nathan Lane), stage a production at the high school.
Thus begins the charming disaster that is the plot of The English Teacher. The students themselves are game and talented, while Mr. Kapinas is a Guffman-esque small-town visionary hell-bent on making the production as professional and artistically honest as possible. Unfortunately, Linda and Jason, despite being equally well-intentioned, are not especially well-behaved: after they sleep together in her classroom (a bottle of Pepto-Bismol is a casualty of their tryst), he takes up with the teenage lead of the play (Lily Collins). Linda pretends she’s not jealous; a variety of catastrophes ensue.
The movie is almost aggressively conventional — structurally and, to a less degree, morally. Everything ends pretty much as you would expect: all the various threads of the plot resolve neatly into a satisfying conclusion, and every character gets roughly what he or she deserves. Linda and Jason are scolded for sleeping with each other — and Jason for messing around with Collins’ character — but not excessively so: the movie seems to treat their fling (if it can even be called that) not so much as a great moral indignity as simply a bad idea from a practical perspective.
The fact that Linda is so much older than Jason is not at all at issue, and the student-teacher dynamic has more to do with the ramifications on the production of the play than on any kind of exploitation on her part. The real problems come not as a result of the sex but rather as a result of how they behave in its aftermath. And yet even here, the characters are treated with compassion. The movie’s humor is kindly, not viciously, satirical, its worldview essentially rosy. It is, quite simply, thoroughly enjoyable — precisely because we know what to expect, and get it.
So: a great artistic achievement, The English Teacher is not. But executing a conventional story well is no mean feat, as the execrable A Case of You proved earlier in the festival. After this screening, I found myself following a shaky mental path that connected these two movies to Lily, another festival flick that I reviewed here. A Case of You tries so hard to provide its audience with familiar rom-com tropes that it completely neuters any appeal it might have had, while Lily is so pointedly anti-narrative that it fails to compel us in the way that it should. I wrote of that film, which unfolds as a series of New York scenes at the end of a young woman’s cancer treatment, “who’s to say that the meandering narrative that so frustrates in Lily is any more ‘real’ than a more traditional form of dramatic structure? The screenplay for this movie must have been written and slaved over just like any other screenplay; despite being inspired by [actress and writer Amy] Grantham’s own experiences, it did not simply spring into being by some magical transfusion of reality into art. Stories are not real – they are constructed objects — but they exist to evoke the real, and often do that best in the context of a recognizable narrative structure.”
The English Teacher’s story is recognizable — perhaps a little too recognizable. I could have gone for a slightly weirder or more ambiguous ending, one that indulged the palpable chemistry between Moore and Angarano and that didn’t tie everything up quite so neatly. But there is nothing inherently bad about a story hewing to narrative patterns with which we are intimately familiar. We like watching and reading those stories because they make us feel safe — and who’s to say there’s anything wrong with a little safety once in a while? The problem comes when familiar tropes feel inorganic to the characters, and in that respect this movie is a success: all of the actors, but especially the always divine Moore, are so genuinely believable, and so kindly written, that they never feel like mere conveniences. Happily, the movie doesn’t, either.