Kate Mara and Nick Robinson star as illicit lovers in FX on Hulu's broody limited series.

By Kristen Baldwin
October 29, 2020 at 03:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Chris Large/FX

Seven years ago, writer/director Hannah Fidell made an atmospheric indie film about a lonely high school teacher who has an affair with a student. HBO initially snapped up the rights to A Teacher in 2014, but the series adaptation has only now arrived — on a very 2020 platform (FX on Hulu) with some very 2020 adjustments (including trigger warnings about grooming on every episode). It’s an interesting idea to reframe a “taboo romance” tale through a post-#MeToo lens, but ultimately, A Teacher is a missed opportunity and it fails to bring a deeper meaning to Fidell’s story.

When the straight boys of Westerbrook High School see their new teacher, Claire Wilson (Kate Mara), they have a predictable reaction: “She is too hot to be a teacher.” A bit reductive, perhaps, but Ms. Wilson doesn’t do much to dissuade senior Eric Walker (Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson) of that notion. After a borderline-flirty meeting at the diner where Eric works, Claire agrees to tutor him for the upcoming SATs. She drives him home in the dark; Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” fills the charged silences.

Even if the show didn’t telegraph some cracks in Claire’s moral foundation (she shoplifts a lipstick in the first three minutes of the pilot), it’s no secret where this is going. The logline says A Teacher explores “the complexities and consequences of a predatory relationship” — but we get too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The first five episodes chronicle the development of Claire and Eric’s relationship, from the initial crossed boundaries to a furtive weekend getaway. Unfortunately, the “complexities” laid out within aren’t all that complicated. Claire is bored with her life and her marriage; worse, her nice-guy husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) wants to start a jam band. Eric is a 17-year-old kid, high on hormones and the fizzy adrenaline of first love, who looks at the woman at the front of his AP English class and sees a soulmate.

Fidell ended her film with the titular teacher on the brink of exposure; here, she has the chance to delve into the aftermath of the abuse. The second half of A Teacher features several time jumps, as Claire and Eric try to proceed with their lives in the wake of a headline-grabbing scandal. Both are saddled with a reputation that varies depending on who they encounter: Claire is a criminal predator or a nymphomaniac, ostracized by local parents and fetishized by Tinder dates. Eric is treated like a conquering hero by his frat brothers, while other students see him as a sexual abuse survivor. He doesn’t want to be either, and the limbo eats away at him. Robinson, with his boyish, sad-eyed beauty and quiet charm, deftly manages Eric’s transition from lovestruck kid to haunted young adult. He and Mara have a palpable chemistry (but don’t worry, folks — Robinson is 25). As Claire, Mara does her best work after the affair is exposed, and we’re able to see glimpses of the emotional damage that fuels her flawed judgment.

What’s ultimately so frustrating about A Teacher is that every time we approach a deeper understanding of who (and how) Claire and Eric really are, the story leaps forward again — sometimes months, sometimes years. Television is a medium that allows us to live with characters; instead, A Teacher gives us a highlight reel of psychic convalescence, before ending on a note of oversimplified closure. What’s the lesson? Perhaps Eric’s best friend Logan (Shane Harper) says it best: “She’s got issues, man.” Grade: B

A Teacher premieres Nov. 10 on FX on Hulu.

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