There’s no predicting how “Teacher” will play in the world wide cinescape. But it hit me. I found writer-director Adam Dick’s debut feature relentlessly disturbing on all sorts of levels. And no, that won’t be to every taste.
He and star David Dastmalchian, of TV’s “MacGuyver,” “Ant Man and The Wasp,” and Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming big screen version of “Dune,” create one of the most serrated portraits of bullying, the ways it tears through a school and scars for life, that the screen has seen in many a year.
It traffics in tropes and stereotypes, ups the ante on the extremes its bullies go to and yet never seems, at any point and in any way, removed from reality.
This is our world, a daily dose of cruelty doled out by the insensate. Here’s a movie that carves “Hurt people hurt people” into the heart and rarely lets us off the hook as it does.
Dastmalchian is Mr. Lewis, teaching Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” to juniors at Prairie Trail High in suburban Chicago. He has the spectacles, the too-flat hair and the sensitivity that mark him as the quintessential nerd. Yes, the film’s prologue shows us, he was bullied as a child, even as he was dealing with a violently unhappy home life.
Bitter? His new divorce barely scratches the surface of that. Anger management issues, a drinking problem — the last thing this guy needs is to see his own haunted life relived by his less fortunate students.
Daniela (Esme Perez) is pointlessly taunted for her race and her shyness, which manifests itself in the halting way she reads from the play in class.
Preston (Matthew Garry) is the kid the jocks pick on in class, on the bus and in the cafeteria. He’s a smart student, a photographer, and that doesn’t seem to help.
Because Tim Cooper (Curtis Edward Jackson), the sociopathic high-born star pitcher of the baseball team won’t let it — or them — be.
“Teacher” sees Mr. Lewis struggle to intervene as Tim escalates their torment in a waking nightmare of beatings, social media shaming and intimidation.
Mr. Lewis is up for tenure, but still he speaks out. Not that his principal (Cedric Young) is much help. “Everything’s fine,” he says. “This isn’t Kafka.”
But later, as everything is even less fine and things seem more Kafkaesque, he pleads — “We need to hang on until summer! Please work with me!”
Because Mr. Lewis, in trying to rein in Tim’s reign of terror, runs him afoul of the brute’s rich, well-connected father. Kevin Pollack is a decent dramatic actor (“A Few Good Men”) and one of the most gifted comic impressionists of our time. But as Bernie Cooper, he is menace incarnate.
Violent? We can’t say. Threatening? Always. Pollack underplays the obvious tells that Dick slips into the script, a rich guy used to getting his way letting on that he knows all about Lewis, his situation and the screws he can turn to get lenience and special treatment for a son he probably realizes is a thug, because he was raised to be “tough” on his inferiors.
Dick, fleshing out a short film he made with this title and on this subject a couple of years back, suggests two might-be-romances. Daniela and Preston are in the foxhole together, awkwardly facing the pitiless piling on of teenagers who are all too eager to reward the bullies for not picking on them. They will bring you to the verge of tears.
And Lewis might find a kindred spirit in fellow teacher Arabella (Helen Joo Lee), whose surface sparkle gives a hint of the brittle underneath, letting on that the reasons she might find James Lewis interesting are things she has in common with him.
Because Dastmalchian never quite lets us root for the guy. We can twitch and empathize with James, even if we don’t sympathize with him. “Bitter…sweet” his only pal on the faculty (John Hoogenakker) says of him.
His ex describes the “mood swings, violence and drinking” that made her give up on James. And Dastmalchian plays the guy as so on edge that the real shocks here aren’t his bubbling rage and narrated thoughts of acting out. It’s when he repeatedly tries to understand the perpetrators, mediate the conflicts and keep the peace that he makes your jaw drop.
A very good actor makes us see the strain all this puts on a loner whose lifelong humiliation never ended.
“They say we can never go home again,” he narrates. “In truth, we never leave.”
The cleverest thing Dick tries and almost succeeds in pulling off is teasing out the viewer’s desire for revenge, of Preston (with only a camera for a weapon) and later social media savvy James, and then upending that craving as if his movie is a “teachable moment.”
When James complains that he’s but a “bark in the dark” when he rants about the sociopathy and cruelty overwhelming a society that rejects “‘After School (Special)’ warm fuzzies,” he might be talking about “Teacher” itself.
I found it so real it leaves bruises.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violent, sexual content, alcohol abuse
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollack, Esme Perez
Credits: Written and directed by Adam Dick. A Cinedigm release.
Running time: 1:40