The English Teacher (2013) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA rated: R for sexual content and language
Running time: 93 min.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Nathan Lane, Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Charlie Saxton, Nikki Blonsky, Fiona Shaw (voice)
Director: Craig Zisk
Screenplay: Dan Chariton, Stacy Chariton
Review published May 6, 2013
Julianne Moore (Game Change, Crazy Stupid Love) stars as Kingston, PA, high school English teacher Linda Sinclair, an introverted 'spinster' who lives so much in the fictional tales of others that she barely has a life of her own. She does go out with men, but like one of the papers handed to her in class by any one of her students, she is constantly grading them against her idea of perfection, and they are all found to be lacking.
One day, Linda has a chance encounter with one of her former students, Jason Sherwood (Angarano, Haywire), and finds that he has written and shopped around an unproduced play, titled "The Chrysalis", that she thinks to be the next great masterwork. On the verge of going to law school to please his strict, arrogant father, Tom (Kinnear, Ghost Town), who thinks Jason's pursuit of the arts is a waste, Linda interjects herself into their lives, after receiving a copy to read that blows her mind, by insisting that the play be brought to life, using her own high school for the production.
Along with drama instructor Carl Kapinas (Lane, Mirror Mirror), Linda sets about trying to convince the school principal to allow the play to see the light of day right in their very theater. With dark, dour subject matter forcing possible rewrite by the school bureaucrats, a former student who would rather see it unproduced than see it altered to blunt its impact, and a meddling father who insists his son focus on his future instead of folly, Ms. Sinclair is going to have a heck of a time keeping it, as well as her own reputation, intact to the end.
The English Teacher is a quirky, dark comedy, not too dissimilar to something that may have been conceived of by Alexander Payne (especially his Election), though not quite focused enough in the more serious moments to hold completely together until the end. It is narrated in proper English lit style by Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I), giving the feeling of one of those olden literary adaptations, promising happily-ever-after romance, ribald pith, and fairy-tale whimsy. One of the wryly witty aspects is of how tortured lives are ascribed to artists, as Jason's upbringing seems relatively normal and uninteresting, but with a play that is so wildly exaggerated to as to include a boorish father and an ending that includes suicide for its main characters, Ms. Sinclair takes the figurative and ascribes the literal. Not that Jason's own comments about how he views his father don't add fuel to the fire.
Director Craig Zisk, who made a name for himself in television as a director/producer for such shows as "The Larry Sanders Show", "Weeds", and "The United States of Tara", does treat the film like an extended episode of a quirky comedy, not striving for anything cinematic, but perfectly in keeping with your typical indie flick release, except with well known actors. The script by the husband-and-wife team of Dan & Stacy Chariton, is both literate and witty, though the tone of the piece does occasionally seem off balance, particularly as the film makes its build to its climax of redemption for everyone involved. It proceeds fairly predictable, though amiable, after that. Fitting that a film about a play with a problematic ending would itself fix all of its characters' follies and foibles in the end and wrap it up in one tidy, crowd-pleasing bow.
©2013 Vince Leo