Portly Movie Review: Teacher (2019)

Given the unprecedented Age of The Virus we’re all living in, and the changes it’s brought to teaching and learning, I’ve been dedicating more and more blog posts to the subject of education.  Like NEO’s recent post “National Lineman’s Day” (the proprietor of Nebraska Energy Observer has electricity in his blood), it’s only natural that I’d keep coming back to my profession as a source of blog material.

Similarly, in entertainment I’m often drawn to films about teaching.  Like pretty much every other teacher, Dead Poets Society left a pretty strong imprint on me (and my students used to call me “Captain,” years ago, though I doubt many would stand on their desks for me), and School of Rock directly shaped my approach to teaching music (indeed, Jack Black deserves the credit—or blame—for my musical personae).  Frank McCourt’s memoirs of teaching, Teacher Man, also inspired me to enter the profession.

So last night, while casting about for some quarantine entertainment, I stumbled upon the psychological thriller/after-school drama Teacher (you can stream it on RedBox for $2.15).  It’s a 2019 film about a nebbish English teacher at a critical juncture in his personal life and career, who is also dealing with intense bullying of two of his nerdy students.  He then decides to take matters into his own hands with some vigilante justice.

The main character, Mr. Lewis, is nearly up for tenure at his high school, where he’s a very devoted English literature teacher.  If the pressure of his tenure review weren’t enough, he’s also going through a difficult divorce.  Lewis might be an alcoholic, and he punched a couple of holes in the wall, so his wife wants out.

On top of it all, the film starts with a young, ludicrously bespectacled Lewis having his face submerged in a shallow, muddy pool by a gang of hooligans.  The mud-covered youngster then stumbles home in time to witness a fight between his angry father and his harpy of a mother.

The film really lays this stuff on thick:  the whole point is that bullies are the creations of other bullies, not unlike vampires.  It’s pretty on-the-nose, but the cheesy, after-school special message aside, it’s a taut thriller throughout.

Mr. Lewis suppresses his inner rage and at the injustice around him and goes about being a teacher as best he can.  There’s a great scene during a divorce settlement hearing in which his wife demands he vacate their home by summer, and, seething at the process, Lewis tells his wife he’s sure she will “rise like a phoenix from the ashes”—before the female mediator tells him “That’s enough, Mr. Lewis.”  That scene says pretty much everything you need to know about divorce-rape in the gynocracy.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

But I I digress.  The real drama in the film involves two students, a nerdy photographer and his very-slightly chubby Mexican girlfriend, who is made out to be a ham planet by the other students.  This pair finds itself in the cross-hairs of Tim Cooper, the stand-in for every rich jock you’ve ever seen in any movie.  He’s torments the poor photographer kid, going to the point that he pushes a nail into his back through a bus seat, but with no witnesses—and with Cooper’s wealthy, influential parents—the hapless administration does nothing.

Meanwhile, Cooper and his buddies run a website of unflattering and pornographic images of the Mexican girl.  She tries to take her own life, which makes for one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in the film.  This occurs after her photographer boyfriend has been stabbed in the park multiple times by masked hoodlums—agents, it would seem, of the sociopathic Tim Cooper.

Facing a world in which the powerful run roughshod over the weak, and with little official recourse, Mr. Lewis snaps, and concocts a truly ridiculous scheme to enact justice.  When I read the description for the film, I figured he was going to start some kind of torture dungeon, or just go full Death Wish on these kids.

That is not what happens.  But after losing his job and chance at tenure—as well as his marriage and his chances with the Michelle Malkin-esque science teacher, Arabella—Lewis does go full bore on enacting revenge on a sixteen-year old.  Of course (SPOILER ALERT), it turns out Cooper himself is a victim of bullying—at the hands of his ultra-Type A father.

One of the other on-the-nose lines in the film is when the ultra-Type A father, Bernie Cooper, says something along the lines of “I worked 80-hours a week for 35 years” to give his son the best education and the best prospects, only to have an English teacher tell his students that the bourgeois white guy is the enemy.  Bernie Cooper ends up being the real villain, of course, because filmmakers can’t stand bourgeois white guys.

There is a pinch of identity politics going on here:  the Mexican girlfriend is sweet, and her family is hardworking (there’s a scene where the father has fallen asleep on the couch in his suit).  The rich white people are bad and throw their money and power around to rig the system.

But those are incidental details, and at this point, I’m not expecting a film where the rich white guy isn’t the villain.  The real heart of the movie is Mr. Lewis’s descent into vigilantism.  He’s been so beaten down by life, he has nothing left to lose.  He finally gets fed up with everything.

Here I detected plenty of parallels with Joker, as well as Michael Douglas’s turn in Falling Down.  The Joker parallel is obvious:  a mostly good and hardworking man with some demons tries to make a good life for himself, but ultimately succumbs to evil means to achieve what he believes is the greater good.

Really, the Falling Down parallel is much the same:  a mostly good and hardworking man with some demons ultimately snaps at the absurdities and minor injustices of modern life, and resorts to increasingly violent ends on his march across Los Angeles.

Teacher definitely falls into that mold:  the disaffected guy who has played by the rules, even when it cost him, and still ended up on the bottom.  These films are cautionary tales, though:  in each case, the attempted cure is worse than the disease.  Teacher ends on a redemptive note, with Mr. Lewis in prison, atoning for his sins—and teaching.

The movie is a bit ham-fisted in parts, and the production is not the best, but it will definitely had you in knots.  If you like these kinds of films—where a man, beaten down by life and its multitude of injustices, tries to take matters into own hands—you’ll enjoy Teacher.  Just know that the attempted suicide scene is rough.

Happy Viewing!

—TPP

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