How do you know that The English Teacher is going to be an exercise in overwrought post-modern indie hipster humor cliché? Why, from the moment we walk down the halls of the high school where our wistful spinster Linda Sinclair (a deserves-better Julianne Moore) works. A confident jock walks up and kisses his cheerleading gal pal. A cynical nerds scoffs, then shows a bit of disappointment at the PDA, and then goes off to buy drugs from a dude sporting earbuds and a knit cap. All that’s missing is a couple of Goths and a nebbish science instructor shouting orders and all the cogs are in place for what a 2013 filmmaker thinks life is (still) like for our current student body.
As Fiona Shaw narrates the rest of our adventure, we watch Linda lead her humdrum, closed bubble life, eating simple meals and watching her collection of Merchant Ivory films. We are told that she is a passionate romantic, but all first time feature director Craig Zisk can make her into is a catalyst for more despair. During a dating montage, the screen is filled with imagined red ink critiques of all the men she meets. It’s supposed to be quirky and cute. Instead, it’s more like a painful cry for attention. All throughout this film, Zisk and his equally novice screenwriting team of Dan and Stacy Charitan hope that such gimmicks will make up for a shortcoming of true originality. All it does is highlight how hopelessly familiar this all is.
When a sheepish Ms. Sinclair pepper sprays Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), an ex-student who’s just returned from New York where he crapped out as a playwright, we know that sparks will sort of fly. We also know that he will have a domineering father (Greg Kinnear) that will pressure him into doing something antithetical to his true nature — to wit, going to law school. Sinclair will not hear of it, and instead, decides to have the school put on his dark, depressing play. With the backing of the drama director (Nathan Lane) and the reluctant approval of the school administration (Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz), the production goes forward. Naturally, this causes all manner of uproar in Sinclair’s staid life, including “losing” Jason to an actress in the show (Lily Collins) while finding common ground with his doctor dad.
You see, the overly cautious caterpillar breaking out of its commonplace cocoon to suddenly spread its newly formed butterfly wings and see the wonderful world they’ve been missing is not a new idea, and unfortunately The English Teacher has nothing inventive to offer within it. Moore makes for a fine Miss Mouse, but we never sense there is a burning hot mama locked deep within her uptight bookworm, even when she’s caught in flagrante delicto in her classroom. In fact, a film like this does the conservative woman who wants nothing more than to live a non-complicated existence a grand disservice. Though it doesn’t come right out and say it, The English Teacher suggests that Sinclair is lost without the lick of romance’s tender flames. It’s the age old “you’re nuttin’ without a man” B.S. that turns any possible meditation into meaningless Tinseltown claptrap.
Moore does manage to keep her heralded head above water, offering interesting moments where Zisk and the Charitans otherwise provide none. Angarano is also agreeable, though there is a bit of piggish opportunism in Jason’s journey. Lane is always intriguing, those he’s given little to do and Kinnear commands a minor amount of concern before his true nature is revealed.
By repeating tropes that are tired and tedious, The English Teacher ends up failing miserably. Not even a stint in summer school could save its unfunny obviousness.
The Blu-ray includes interviews and a deleted scene.