“I’m not a writer. I’m a reader, and we need plenty of those,” Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) declares. She’s speaking to a classroom full of adoring high school literature students eager to know if their favorite teacher has ever written anything, “like a novel or play or something.” They are in the middle of a discussion on Sydney Carton’s death in A Tale of Two Cities, when Linda offers her own reading of modern society and its “loss of virtues like honor and selfless action” that effectively, albeit sweetly, shuts down any alternative resolution to Dickens’ novel. Apparently, “we” actually only need a certain number of readers.
The English Teacher — opening in select theaters and available on VOD — is all about reading, or more to the point, misreading, mainly Linda’s. It begins with Fiona Shaw’s lovely voiceover, filling us in on the details of Linda Sinclair’s life: she’s 45 and single, “with no prospect of marriage. She lives a life of discipline, frugality, small indignities, modest hopes, and disappointments.” Her path from book-loving child to cherished teacher is laid out before us in comical flashbacks, showing her as an aloof seven-year-old reading Wuthering Heights while her banal classmates play, or again, as a virginal, flashlight-wielding college student reading under her covers and refusing her roommate’s sexual writhings any privacy. That she’s not had her own love life hardly needs to be spelled out.
The problem with that voiceover is that while it might be perfectly suited for a Jane Austen novel or a film based on same, Linda’s life in Kingston, Pennsylvania would afford her little interaction with British narrator types. And that’s the point, really. This little voiceover trick reveals Linda’s self-reading, the narrative she tells herself and projects to others: “She found her sanctuary in literature. Her uncompromising spirit, so beloved in the classroom had doomed her to the life of a spinster. For how could she be a role model to her students if she settled for just any man?” This as she is seen on a string of blind dates (so clearly not accepting her fate as spinster) with grossly caricatured men.
Linda’s misreading of herself and her surroundings allows her some measure of solace and also structures The English Teacher. “A true romantic is always alone, ever on guard against a dangerous world,” her inner voice warns. And so, when Linda is approached one evening at an ATM by former student Jason (Michael Angarano), she pepper-sprays him even while he cries out, “Who uses pepper spray in Kingston?!” Jason has returned home after graduating from NYU’s Dramatic Writing program and failing to get his play produced. His father, Tom (Greg Kinnear), generally unsupportive and mean-spirited according to Jason, is insisting that he give up his writing dreams and move on to law school. After some flattery from Jason, Linda insists she would love to read his play and so the next evening she does just that, pouring over The Chrysalis in one sitting and moved both to tears and inspiration. She will persuade the high school drama department to produce Jason’s play.
Her collaboration with Jason leads to a foreseeable and impossible sexual liaison, after which Linda immediately descends into a mix of equally unreasonable literary self-justification and slut-shaming, which she remedies with the same selfless action she lectured about earlier. She writes bigger and bigger checks to bolster the budget for Jason’s play, in her own way standing up to those abuses Jason attributes to his father. But when Jason’s attention moves on to Halle (Lily Collins), the pretty lead actress in Chrysalis, Linda is less wedded to those “classical virtues” she has always been so eager to tout. In fact, it’s apparent early on that when it comes to getting her way in any area, Linda tends to view those virtues on a sliding scale.
This is hardly a surprise, and for the most part, The English Teacher is a predictable and unfunny walk through high school socio-political killing fields, its excellent cast notwithstanding. But the question of readings and misreadings provides a little more to consider than the skimpy plot suggests. The fictions that Jason offers to Linda are numerous and formulaic, certainly stories she should recognize if only they didn’t coincide with her own (perhaps willful) misreading of his character (suffering artiste) and her own.
The film is determined to correct Linda’s behavior, her self-narrating, her classical virtues, her singleness, even her view of the literature she loves so much and her relationship to it as a reader. This, in particular, is annoying. As Linda casts aside broad notions of “honor” and “selfless action” following her sexual encounter with Jason, she begins, slowly, to write her own story, or so we are meant to think. And so when we see her later, encouraging alternative interpretations to A Tale of Two Cities and now with a “hot for teacher” outfit, we can’t help but roll our eyes, because in fact, nothing is new at all. This is in fact, the oldest formula of all. None of the heroines Linda admires ends up as a spinster. They merely begin all their novels believing they will. But they are all required to learn a lesson, to be put in their proper place and only then earn their reward (love). Linda is no different. Her transformation is as predictable as they come.
And yet, Linda doesn’t get it all wrong. Whatever her bias is towards Jason, the play itself is good, apparently, and Jason a decent playwright, whether he’s a decent man or not. “I know a thing or two about good stories,” Linda brags. And so she does. What she doesn’t know much about is discerning fact from fiction.