‘A Teacher’ Blurs the Line Between Consent and Abuse of Authority
FX on Hulu’s “A Teacher” takes the story of a naïve student seduced by a cunning teacher and attempts to dig deeper into how predatory and traumatic actions develop in the most insidious ways. Creator Hannah Fidell didn’t have to look far for inspiration considering this limited series is based on her own 2013 movie of the same name. Expanded into TV, some of the nuances are lost, but what remains is a compulsively watchable and fittingly tricky portrait of abuses of power.
The setting is suburban Texas where Claire Wilson (Kate Mara) is starting her first days teaching English at Westerbrook High School. Like many a TV American suburbanite in their mid-30s, Claire is bored. Her husband and college sweetheart, Matt (Ashley Zukerman), is a doctor constantly away from home and nearing an early midlife crisis. The kids at Westerbrook are just what you would expect. Eric (Nick Robinson) is an almost 18-year-old senior and soccer team captain struggling with prepping for the SATs who aspires to be a doctor (you can see where this is going). He spends most of his time with rowdy buddies from the soccer team rating girls, talking about exes and noticing that Mrs. Wilson is very attractive. However, a chance encounter at a local diner allows Claire and Eric to really talk and she agrees to be his SAT tutor. The two grow closer. For Claire it’s as if Eric fills the void Matt leaves in his wake. Before long she allows the relationship to move into a dangerous spiral.
“A Teacher” takes an approach that could either come across as too hazy or bold. While it never goes for edginess in its style, Fidell’s expansion of her original concept in the movie allows for the story to evolve in a way that challenges the viewer. Simply put, there are no easy answers as to why Claire makes the choices she makes and takes advantage of her young student. What the show is keenly aware of is how people can tend to make toxic, life-changing decisions. Claire has no excuses for her illegal behavior even if she is emotionally unstable and suffers from being stranded in a bored marriage, complete with a Subaru and pretty home. She is reaching that stage where she wants to have a baby, but one senses her behavior is more out of a grasp to give daily existence some meaning. Matt is supportive but his own approaching midlife crisis doesn’t help. In a hilarious but all too accurate scene, Claire discovers he’s spent some of their savings on music instruments, because another doctor friend has proposed they seriously start a band. You can feel countless viewers’ eyes roll.
By setting this suburban stage so well, Fidell then lets the affair between Claire and Eric develop in a disturbingly organic way. Claire knows she has power over her Eric and begins to first exercise it with subtle force masked as friendliness. When Eric mentions his dream is to attend UT Austin she gives him a personal tour, since it’s her alma mater. Claire even joins him to an outdoor frat party. In incremental steps common to our own times, attraction and impulse begin to swirl together. Eric adds Claire on Instagram and when she accepts, it’s the equivalent of saying “I like you too.” Kate Mara’s performance through all this is the show’s great highlight. She doesn’t give away too much, yet the smallest mannerism, like a smile or tone of voice, hints at the dangerous manipulation going on. But she’s not exactly malevolent. Mara does not play Claire as a movie seductress. Like HBO’s “The Tale,” Mara captures how monsters hide behind everyday personalities. Because Eric has no life experience or real, personal growth, he doesn’t have the maturity to see what is going on. Claire is still young enough where no one questions her appearance at the UT party with Eric. This no doubt only fuels the delusion that what they’re doing is fine. Claire doesn’t need to get into Eric’s mind by tempting him. She just treats him like a buddy. When he confesses his feelings during a homecoming dance it’s the dialogue of a kid who’s watched too many YA movies, and that’s the point. Claire has no right to take advantage of this kid’s naivety.
As the story progresses we can already sense the casualties that will be caught in the inevitable emotional firestorms to come. Bystanders include Eric’s best friends, Logan (Shane Harper) and Josh (Dylan Schmid), who have a brewing conflict over Logan dating Josh’s sister, and Kathryn (Marielle Scott), the only teacher at the high school who tries to be a friend to Claire. All these roles are performed with a comfortable authenticity.
“A Teacher” could have been just another show about suburban woes and how people in pretty neighborhoods get into some ugly scandals. But Fidell wisely avoids sensationalism. This series understands how quickly bad decisions can develop into something toxic, and how even the most alluring predators can manipulate a sense of trust from their victims.
“A Teacher” premieres Nov. 10 with new episodes streaming Tuesdays on FX on Hulu.