Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Hannah Fidell’s finely tuned debut feature A Teacher is that the film gets its audience to sympathize with the emotional landscape of one of the world’s most objectively evil offenders – a child molester who preys upon her own students. Fidell’s film, which debuted back in January at Sundance as part of the festival’s unspoken “inappropriate relationship” section to mostly positive acclaim skirts the issue admirably – teacher Diana (Lindsay Burdge) is pretty enough and young enough to seem “innocent,” student Eric (Will Brittain) appears willing enough and complicit enough to not seem damaged by the experience – making it easy to metaphorically squint at the film’s proceedings and believe they just might be okay. Eric, after all, is practically grown, and he so frequently appears to have the upper hand in the relationship. And Diana? She so often acts like one of Eric’s peers, as if she wasn’t his teacher, but some mousy classmate shocked to find that someone so handsome and so popular would deign to even look at her.
That’s the trick of A Teacher, that you can almost talk your way out of it, that you can almost reason it, before walking out of the theater and shaking yourself clean and remembering that it’s not okay and you’ve been in the sort of fog that Diana herself must have felt. There’s all sorts of issues tied up in the pair’s relationship – legal ones and moral ones and emotional ones – and no matter how Diana or Eric try to talk around it, she’s still a predator, and he’s still prey.
Yet, for all the hard and fast judgments that can be handed down on A Teacher when emotion (and, it must be noted, Burdge’s deft performance) are stripped away, the film’s moral quandaries and female-teacher-as-predator theme are absolutely nothing compared to author Alissa Nutting’s recently released “Tampa,” a book so salacious, so pornographic, and so disturbing that you’ll frequently want (scratch that – need) to put it down if only to give yourself a break. Oh, it’s also pretty damn good, too.
Spoiler alert: I’ve done my best to write any statements about both the book and film that could be interpreted as set in stone spoilers in as obtuse as a way possible, so keep that in mind.
The release of Nutting’s book was met with controversy when it hit shelves earlier this month, simply because in telling the story of beautiful twenty-six-year-old middle school teacher Celeste Price, Nutting doesn’t shy away from penning over-the-top sex scene (and we mean “sex” in its many forms – with others, by herself, by way of fantasy, through deviant behavior that gets a rise out of her) after over-the-top sex scene. The book opens with a paragraph about Celeste spending the entire night before the first day of school feverishly masturbating while her husband slumbers unaware next to her. Nutting herself has deemed Celeste “an exaggerated predator,” but even that interpretation is of little use once the reader is trapped within Celeste’s world – a world entirely dominated by her furious hunger to have sex with fourteen-year-old boys.
That’s right, eighth graders, boys that are purposely on the cusp of manhood, boys very different from A Teacher’s victim, so young that there’s never a moment in “Tampa” where the concept of victimhood even steps a toe into some kind of gray area. Celeste is one of the most uncompromising villains to hit the page this year, and her abilities to prey on children would likely shock even Diana.
Celeste’s understanding of her illness is much different than Diana’s – while the A Teacher protagonist fancies herself actually in love with her student (she is, after all, the one who reacts emotionally to their relationship, while Eric remains fixated on the physical aspects of it), Celeste is aware that she’s a pervert (a “soulless” one at that) and she doesn’t give a good goddamn about the emotional repercussions of her deeds. In fact, after grooming the object of her affection, young Jack Patrick, and subsequently taking some major steps to pull him under her sway, Celeste even takes a moment to observe the boy for signs of emotional trauma. “Seeing” none, she continues on her quest. It’s doubtful she would have stopped even if she saw something marring Jack’s emotions (and it becomes very clear very quickly that Jack has taken things to heart in a wrenching and scarring way).
While A Teacher is packed with tension – my Sundance review of the film mentions that the film’s “second half is wonderfully upsetting and filled with unease. Fidell knows how to craft tension – not jump scare tension – but emotional tension, the kind we know is going to pay off with something horrifying and real and honest, something we cannot escape or avoid, but something with a message” – that same tension is missing from “Tampa.” Thankfully so, because the book is already so emotionally heavy that it’s hard to imagine loading any more of that sort of stuff on top of it. It seems clear from the opening of A Teacher that Diana will be found out, particularly because Fidell chose to set her film during the waning days of Diana and Eric’s relationship and the sense of finality is ever-lurking, but Celeste is so wily and so calculated and so prone to mentally planning escape routes that her final reckoning seems much less clear and obvious. She’s a criminal and a deviant who lives entirely outside the bounds of the accepted social contract, and yet we keep reading, unsure of even the possibility of retribution and justice.
A Teacher clocks in at under ninety minutes (it’s closer to seventy, actually) and, likewise, Nutting’s book is just a hair over two hundred pages. These are swift, sick stories that come at their audiences with the maximum of emotion and detail. While their material proves to be, to put it delicately, distasteful to some, both Fidell and Nutting have crafted work that is able to shock and stun in a very real way. They don’t need bombs or guns or superheroes, both have mined the great unknown villain of society – the female predator.
A Teacher will open in limited release on September 6th. “Tampa” is currently available in bookstores, online, and as an e-book.