TW: Sexual abuse
To have a crush on a teacher as a young person is the thrill of being seen as an adult in a world that doesn’t take you seriously. The loneliness of feeling desperately misunderstood, coupled with changing hormones that fuel both wild insecurity and a budding, confusing sexuality, is rife for attaching itself to any positive attention. It’s a side effect of the immaturity that A Teacher (FX/Hulu) gradually reveals has eluded the titular character, high school teacher Claire (Kate Mara); growing up with an alcoholic father and unstable home life means Claire was forced to mature quickly. When we meet her at the start of the series, we see her acting out in small ways that befit a teenage girl, like shoplifting lipstick. It’s this state of mind that Claire can comfortably regress to when with one of her students, Nick (Nick Robinson), made all the more intense as she begins to pursue a predatory relationship with him.
Escalating quickly out of Claire’s inability to see Nick as a child and instead as her equal, she doesn’t see herself as an abuser because she sees herself as the victim. Of her life, her circumstances, her loss of control. When she’s with Nick, her problems become decidedly teenage; scoring well on the SATs, school dances. They are innate, passing worries that have both absolute and meaningless consequences. They aren’t heavy like trying to have a baby with a partner, or reviving a stale relationship. They are giddy confessions with a girlfriend outside the dance. They become the horrified look on a colleague’s face as reality sets into focus.
It’s an empathetic viewpoint on how someone becomes an abuser, one that director Hannah Fidell exploits with sharp direction and musical cues that drive the tone. A particular inclusion of Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” cuts through a chilling moment only a couple episodes in, mimicking the dizzying, buzzy thrill of a new crush for Mara’s Claire, and presenting the viewer with instant, awe-filled disgust. It’s this play, of portraying something genuinely horrific under the guise of the character misunderstanding it for romance or playful lust, that furthers the show’s mission of depicting the crux of this type of abuse: grooming.
As outlined by the advocacy group Alliance for Children, “Grooming is a professional term used to describe the calculated and gradual process by which an offender sexually abuses a child.” By its very nature, grooming manipulates the child into not only being abused, but also as complicit in the abuse. Claire makes an offer to tutor Nick without being prompted, a first sign of aggression she passes off as an interest in helping one of her students succeed. As the story progresses, she moves the goal posts while claiming it’s not a game, often presented as unconscious decisions, a domino effect of choices that reinforce the way Claire feels loved and powerful when she’s with Nick. It lulls her into her regression, promising a safe harbour without pause to consider how the other might be affected, or that what’s transpiring might have actual consequences. It’s this ambivalence to the reality of the situation that fuels the abuse in the first place, leading both to eventually label it as love.
When Nick is seen “pursuing” Claire, he is acting out of fear for the loss of the happiness and comfort he feels when they are together, and to continue to build a relationship he believes is his responsibility to protect because of that fear. It’s a vicious cycle of establishing and then abusing trust, and is predicated on the abusive party having either a perceived or real power over the victim. Claire is blind to the idea that Nick does not love her as an equal, but instead wants to make her happy, proud even, as an authority figure in his life. Nick, too, has only understood love to be suffering thanks to a difficult home life, and perceives Claire’s affection and attention as a positive thing, even as it starts to take an emotional and physical toll on him.
With each episode of the series punctuated by warnings for its depiction of sexual abuse and grooming, we understand right from the start that this is a story of predation, not of a misunderstood couple fighting for their love, a common off-tone message in Lifetime Original Movies of the same theme. The setup of the series itself a modernised response to society’s collective (and on-going) re-understanding of sexual abuse, a woman, particularly an attractive white woman, being the abuser never plays here as the token gender-reversal stories saturating big budget takes. Instead, it opens the door to a subtlety in how abuse manifests and more powerfully, how the lines of consent can quickly blur.
Presenting and depicting a morally wrong situation like abuse does not inherently suggest the storyteller is endorsing the action. While there are moments that linger where Fidell’s efficiency elsewhere in the series would have kept the tone on-track, what is depicted is not a shallow, reflectionless pondering on student-teacher abuses. The soul of the drama itself lives within the acting of its two leads, both telling the story in facial cues and body language that give the characters depth, as well as insight into their head-spaces as the relationship develops.
After being caught, Claire is sent to jail and Nick leaves home for college, she now a pariah and he a hero among his frat brothers. It’s the inner worlds of the two that keep the pulse of the story moving in its most realistic state. What’s left here is still a pang of empathy while also allowing the truth to be clear as day. Fidell’s storytelling demonises the acts, not the people, a sign of respect for the subject matter and real-life victims of abuse that was frankly refreshing in a world overrun with true crime stories that do more to titillate than reflect.
When in 2019 comedian Aziz Ansari was accused of assault by a woman, he responded that he was “surprised” to learn she was “uncomfortable” during their date, claiming to have misunderstood that the woman did not want to engage in a sexual act she felt forced to participate in. It was a pinpoint in the #MeToo movement that revealed the grey areas of consent at the centre of many instances of assault: that two people can live through the same situation but have experienced it completely differently.
All stories are complicated, and the series does a creative reading on a difficult topic with storytelling that engages while it horrifies. A Teacher knows you’re smart enough to see the truth for what it is amidst the haze, tantalising the viewer with drama that pulls you in towards that truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.
by Allison Valiquette