Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our Tribeca coverage, and as of today, the film is in limited release.
In The English Teacher, star Julianne Moore plays an English teacher; I point that out, redundantly, because the character type is almost redundant. Everything that you would expect from a stereotypical high school purveyor of Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne is true about Moore’s Ms. Linda Sinclair. She’s introduced as the obvious loner, a shy woman in love with the classics. She goes on blind dates with terrible men, who she imaginatively grades in her head like a student’s paper. The script even goes so far as to make sure she’s buffeted by voiceover narration, in an inevitably British accent.
Yet Moore, and to an extent director Craig Zisk, do an excellent job at keeping Ms. Sinclair away from the frustrating blandness of the stock character, at least for the first act of the film. There isn’t necessarily more to her than meets the eye, but the people around her allow her to grow into something more interesting. The English Teacher has quite the admirable start, winning the audience over in spite of all of our preconceived notions about this sort of self-consciously charming indie movie.
That’s how it begins, anyway. Ms. Sinclair is a bored English teacher in a small Pennsylvania town, somewhere in the vicinity of Scranton. She bumps into a former student at the bank. Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) is a playwright, or at least he went to NYU for it. He couldn’t get his first play produced in New York, so he’s back living with his father and trying to accept going to law school. Ever the font of pedagogical support, Ms. Sherwood refuses to let that happen. They’ll produce his play at the high school!
Here enters the rest of the cast, a panoply of semi-familiar faces. Nathan Lane gets to ham it up as the drama teacher and director of the play, Lily Collins is the naïve and impressionable star, even Nikki Blonsky gets to give a performance entirely in an affected Irish accent. Finally, Greg Kinnear is introduced as Jason’s likely unsupportive father. It’s an odd group, which never quite manages to achieve a rapport strong enough to build a unique feel for the high school. This is no Mean Girls.
Mercifully, however, it doesn’t try to be, and Zisk and screenwriters Dan and Stacy Charlton are mostly concerned with their title character. Ms. Sinclair makes a whole slew of mistakes, the first of which involves an indiscretion both lurid and inevitable. In taking on Jason’s play she thinks she’s finally found purpose in her life, much more worthwhile than the terrible blind dates. This is a woman who defines herself as a “reader” when asked by one of her students if she’s ever written anything of her own. While she’s happy in that role, cheerfully explaining that “the world needs readers,” it’s something entirely new and exciting for Ms. Sinclair to actually create art.
This should be a smart set-up for a rewarding character study – instead, Zick and the Charltons build a comic soap opera that dashes most of the good will The English Teacher earned in its first third. Clichés abound and Ms. Sinclair actually becomes less relatable as the story moves forward, in spite of Moore’s pretty consistent skill at characterization. The film also forgets its literary allusion narration entirely, losing touch with its initial tone and diving right into the sordid but bland tropes of the genre.
Ms. Sinclair is an English teacher, but she isn’t given much nuance therein. What even are her favorite novels? This may seem like a minor point, but she’s shown admiring everything from Dickens to García Marquez. Obviously any reader has a variety of tastes, but a character as broadly painted as the spinster teacher deserves a little more specificity. Instead, the film veers away from its creativity and dives right into uninspired antics. Moore is better than this.
The Upside: Julianne Moore is the best; some moments do land, especially in the first act; Nathan Lane is funny (I swear).
The Downside: Shaky second half manipulates characters with too strong a hand; the film is too concerned about Ms. Sinclair’s romantic future rather than her actual character.
On the Side: Look for an uncredited cameo by John Hodgman!