The English Teacher is a great film for many reasons, but one of them is it touches on a subject that is so often ignored and undermined in the world. That subject is exercising a passion for something that doesn't amount to anything. It is one of the greatest personal tragedies in life, and those who experience it are likely to lose confidence in themselves and in the world. No longer does your passion become a gift but a curse once you realize you may not or are not able to do anything with it.
This strikes a personal chord with me; someone who excels in writing and creativity but flounders with math and science in a computer/arithmetic driven society. The last five years, I've maintained great relationships with my English teachers, who I've held dearly to my heart in school as they guided me and supported me through my ongoing career in writing. The thought that this may never amount to anything but a personal hobby is a frighteningly upsetting one, but it's a reality I've too-long ignored. Even if this turns into nothing else than an outlet for self-satisfaction and personal fulfillment, I have greatly enjoyed the ride.
Moreover, The English Teacher concerns Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a high school English teacher in the small town of Kingston, Pennsylvania. She's in her mid-forties, unmarried, and content with her position in the world, going through a textbook routine of eating healthy, watching Television, and trying to enrich her students with the wonders of classic literature. She discovers one of her old students, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who she recalls as one of the greatest writers she ever had, is back in town and living with his domineering father Tom (Greg Kinnear). Jason reveals to her that after going to New York to major in dramatic writing, success has seemingly passed him by and he has taken his father's advice to go to law school. Jason clearly loathes this idea, and subtly winces when he says that writing makes him nauseous, but Linda can't see him throwing away his long-pursued hobby for the redundancy of being a lawyer.
Jason gives Linda a copy of "The Chrysalis," a play he wrote that he shopped around to no avail. She reads it, cries her eyes out, shows it to the drama teacher (Nathan Lane), he highly regards it, they force the school to allow it as this year's school play, and they reluctantly accept - but they demand the tragic suicide ending be changed. Linda buries this small point when disclosing the contract to Jason, who approaches the idea of his play being made with great hesitation. In the meantime, passions begin to flare between the confidence-deprived writer, the repressed, unfulfilled English teacher, and one of the leads in the play leading to much stress amidst the cast.
Julianne Moore gives a career-making performance as Linda, a role that is made more complex by including the ideas that she is in fact happy with her life position, regardless of the fact that the spark is fading dimmer and dimmer. When she is suddenly given more responsibility when Jason's play commences, we see that she may have not been lying as she handles the pressure with great uncertainty and frustration. Michael Angarano, who earlier this year did great work in the quirky, effervescent Brass Teapot, terrifically captures the essence of a struggling writer in search of a voice and heart. And while somewhat shortchanged, Greg Kinnear is never a problem to see turn up in any film.
When you really think about it, a job as an English teacher is pretty unforgiving. I can show you how to do a math problem and, since there's a set of rules and specifics to obtain a certain solution, solving it involves direction and not creativity. English and writing, on the other hand, are harder to teach. You can teach formatting, punctuation, and sentence structure (the redundancy of subjects, predicates, verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, independent, and dependent clauses had me struggling to stay awake in grade school), but when it comes time to actually write, the weight is all on you on how you approach a subject. Formatting you can teach, but creativity you can not. I can tell someone how to properly use punctuation, but I can not tell them how to structure an essay accordingly.
I say an English teacher is an unforgiving job because I feel that more than half of a typical student body feel that writing is a chore. I'm likely one of the few who actually smiles when told we're going to write an essay. I can finally express creativity, opinion, and insight far beyond the confines of the coldness of multiple choice questions and short answer responses. Writing gives a human range and freedom to express thoughts, and I hold that kind of expression dearly to my heart. And when an English teacher assigns kids a book to read, they almost have to duck and cover. It's predictable, but at the same time crushing to hear kids regard classic literature as "a waste of time" or "so pointless." I recall being the only person in my English classes to enjoy the tragic hero in Death of a Salesman and the communist symbolism in Of Mice and Men.
But I digress. The English Teacher is a terrific film, with beautiful touches of intelligence, craft, soul, and careful storytelling. The relationship between a teacher and former student is touchingly portrayed, and the characters seen throughout the film are the kind you regard as friends and colleagues. This is a remarkable picture that certainly overcomes its awkward, out-of-place English narration.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Michael Angarano, Nathan Lane, and Lily Collins. Directed by: Craig Zisk.