Teacher. 2019. Directed & Written by Adam Dick.
Starring David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilyssa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, & Bryce Dannenberg.
Spark in the Dark Productions / Buffalo 8 Productions
Not Rated / 100 minutes
Disclaimer: Significant spoilers ahead!
There are films about bullying— or films with plots in them that deal with bullying— which are excellent views into how damaged young psyches can spin out of control when boiled in the pressure cooker of high school, where race, sexual identity / orientation, and other normal aspects of life are fodder for the vitriol of young people who’ve already been taught the language of hate. Other films are too preachy, attempting to tell us what we already know: bullies are bad and the abuse needs to stop.
Then there’s a film like Adam Dick’s Teacher, based on his earlier 2017 short of the same name. The screenplay involves a high school English teacher named James Lewis (David Dastmalchian). He’s dealing with his own past issues being bullied at school, a rough childhood, and a broken marriage. He tries to play the game in town, watching as his school tiptoes around rich families.
One day things change when a student named Tim Cooper (Curtis Edward Jackson) gets into a fight, and nerdy Preston Walsh (Matthew Garry) decides to tell the truth about what he saw. Tim’s slapped on the wrist, and James tries to make sure the kid’s father, Bernard (Kevin Pollak)— a well-known bourgeois local— understands this can’t happen again. Unfortunately it does, and much, much worse. James starts to see how the powerful escape all responsibility and punishment. He decides it’s either sit by and keep watching vulnerable students be broken by people like Tim, or take action.
But taking action can mean many things.
One of the important aspects of Teacher is its interrogation of what being a victim of abuse— whether from bullying at school or the bullying of parents at home— does to a person, and how each victim decides to let their trauma shape the rest of their lives. Dick’s screenplay also focuses on several issues that enable bullies or that bullies use as part of their abusive arsenal: class, racism, and white privilege.
The characters are all so real that even when the plot veers into exaggerated territory, everything feels familiar, especially for those who’ve experienced bullying. Some people will see themselves reflected in the victims, some may remember their high school selves more like the bullies. And some will understand that, at times, the line between the two can become nebulous— if we allow it.
“Does being a victim
make a person good?”
Bullying and being victimised are an eternal cycle in the process of growing up. The opening scene depicts James’s experience with bullies, and, like he says, “shame changes nothing but its clothes.” From the 1980s to a postmodern world of social media and smartphones at school in 2019, the inherent nature of bullying remains the same from one generation to the next, regardless of the methods employed.
Not only that, the structures that help prop bullies up will never die.
All types of abusive behaviour, including bullying, are aided by certain structures in society, some of which we see in Teacher. Abuse calls for justice, and justice itself is determined by so many aspects of life. The first and most obvious structure is the concept of social class and how it affects justice. Tim comes from a rich family, so he’s afforded different treatment when it comes to discipline at school. Not only that, he’s a literal poster boy for white privilege, appearing front and centre on a school team poster. We further see how race comes into play here. Tim’s fight with a student— the precursor for all that comes later— is with a Latino kid, Juan. Not hard to imagine that, were Juan the instigator, he wouldn’t have been treated the same as Tim with no real consequences.
An added layer in the film is the intersection between various aspects like race and class, and, through the character of Daniela (Esme Perez), the painful exploration of how race and gender collide. Daniela and Preston have a burgeoning relationship, inadvertently pulling her into his troubles once Tim makes him a target. She experiences misogyny / sexism, combined with racist attitudes from a bunch of other kids at school after someone makes a degrading website with pictures depicting her in racist / sexual caricatures. Her treatment and the violent behaviour Tim displays is passed off via the “boys will be boys treatment,” nobody wanting to look too closely at the gender bias and racism festering right below the surface of the local high school for fear of the uncomfortable truths it would reveal about them all.
Everything comes down to power— who holds it, and how they choose to wield it over others. James refers to this perpetual wrestling match with power as “the beat of human history.” These larger societal power struggles all too often originate right at the home, on the family level. Families can turn children into ready-made victims for the rest of the world, by abusing them mentally or physically. James is an example. We get a glimpse of his tortured childhood, bouncing back and forth from horrible bullies at school to his chaotic existence at home. He learned from an abusive father and grew up trying to reject what he was taught— we know a violent temper is what drove his wife away.
Likewise, Tim is another example. He’s lived a hidden life of abuse at home, experiencing psychological and physical abuse at Bernard’s hands. His father teaches him that masculinity means showing no weakness, and talking about feelings is akin to massaging “the clit” of your “inner child.” Tim’s trauma is crystallised in a single moment: a shot of a vintage rifle on the Cooper mantle pointing its barrel directly at a framed photograph of him. The collector’s item Bernard keeps illustrates a legacy of violence, as if a loaded weapon aimed at Tim, just waiting to go off, one way or another.
“Whose perspective is valid?”
Tim’s secret home life isn’t an excuse for his awful, violent behaviour. It illustrates how that brutally masculine attitude in which he’s been steeped, like so many boys / young men, prevents him from seeking help, for fear of being seen as weak, re-directing his toxic masculine anger towards other guys at school, like Preston, whom he bullies with oddly homoerotic behaviour— a staple of the insecure high school dude. His bullying is really part of a mask he uses to shield himself from having to confront hard questions in himself. James also wears his own mask, hiding childhood abuse and the bullying at school beneath alcohol and his efforts as a teacher. He and Tim are two incredibly similar sides of one coin. They help show us how people of similar history, despite class, can diverge on separate paths, yet ultimately arrive at the same type of places in the end.
Dick forces us to consider the “whose perspective is valid” question in terms of whether a person can be both a hero and a villain, the victim and the bully. We see this in James and Tim, and it’s reflected thematically in the English class reading William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The class discusses Shylock‘s character, and Mr. Lewis interrogates his students about whether Shakespeare’s character is heroic or villainous. This is actually the audience’s conversation, seeing as how we’re left to decide this for ourselves about the teacher and the bully.
Clearly James has let his victimisation as a boy colour all areas of his life. He’s lost a wife due to unresolved anger from the trauma of being bullied brutally. He’s got a likely drinking problem, and a serious issue with rage, too. This boils over into his daily life as a teacher, watching students go through the same things he experienced a couple decades prior. And it nearly ruins him entirely.
A quote from The Merchant of Venice embodies the way James parallels Shylock perfectly, from Act III, Scene I: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” James nearly turns this quote into bloody action, stepping back from the figurative ledge at the last second. He realises in time he’s become a bully in his own right by violently attempting to cauterise the cycles of violence he’s watched on repeat since he was a boy. There’s a poignant image at the end of James erasing a whiteboard, literally doing away with a line he’s drawn between hero and villain, a space he’s come to understand.
Dick could’ve created something hokey. Instead, Teacher is a difficult look at many of the issues which surround bullying. He examines how victims can turn their trauma into good just as easily as something destructive. He also doesn’t forget to pay attention to the ways bullying is enabled, through problems connected to gender, socioeconomic class, and race— all of which are, many times, inextricable.
Because the reality is there’s no one way to create a bully. Neither is there a single way to eradicate the human tendency to let power run roughshod over those without any. Dick’s film isn’t here to offer the answers to question without one, it’s here to challenge our rigid conceptions of what constitutes a bully and what constitutes a victim, trying to make us aware that, occasionally, it’s not so easy to delineate the two.
There does remain a message at the core. Those of us who’ve had violence done to us, physically or mentally, have to decide if we want to perpetuate that violence against others and in the process become like the people who’ve done it to us, or if we’ll choose to grow into who we wish to become in spite of what’s been done to us and to treat others in exactly the opposite way we’ve been treated.
Not an easy message to put into practice, though that doesn’t alter its necessity.