Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is the titular English teacher, a 40-something spinster whose life has been so filled with literature that she has been unable to find a man who can fulfil her romantic ideals. She discovers that one of her old students, Jason (Michael Angarano), is back in their small town after returning from studying writing at university. He’s given up on his dreams of being a writer, but after Linda reads his play, The Chrysalis, she decides it must be staged and that her high school is going to do.
Jason is uncertain whether he wants to allow a high school to premiere a work that’s so important to him, and the school administration is sure either. They demand that the end of the play is altered to be less downbeat, something Linda knows Jason would never agree to. Linda and drama teacher Carl (Nathan Lane) say that they will make the changes, while secretly intending to keep the original ending intact – and not telling Jason alterations had even been discussed.
As rehearsals get underway Linda’s passion for the project segues into a moment of passion with her former student. Although she decides it should only be a one-time thing, when she sees Jason flirting with the show’s leading lady (Lily Collins), her jealous reaction sets off a chain reaction that sees her entire life start to unravel.
The English teacher is based on a fun idea and it’s got a great cast, but unfortunately problems with the script result in a rather mediocre movie. It’s slightly ironic that a movie about how a writer resists anyone changing his precious words, could have done with a good script editor and someone to give the whole thing a polish. There are plenty of good moments and potentially interesting characters, but the film keeps doing things with them that don’t quite seem true, as if it understands these people to a certain extent, but its understanding doesn’t go all that deep.
The film also has a few issues juggling its themes, throwing up numerous ideas but often seeming to lose track of what it’s trying to say, or doing thing that undermine what the rest of the film has been about. That’s particularly true of the romance aspect, as the opening scene sets out the film as being about a woman who’s been unable to meet a man who fits her idealistic criteria, but then it doesn’t seem sure what to do about it. It flirts with a few intriguing and possibly subversive possibilities before tacking on a resolution that doesn’t quite feel true (although it is pretty safe and generic). It even waits to do that after the main thrust of the movie has ended so it feels like an afterthought. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, like Jason’s play, the film was originally supposed to end in a completely different way, but it ended up being changed in a way that doesn’t fully work.
There’s some wit on show and both Julianne Moore and Michael Angarano give good performances, and there are also an awful lot of things that could have made for a really good, rather sweet movie. Unfortunately though it doesn’t fully work. Some of it is pretty good, but with a little work it could have been a lot more.
Overall Verdict: There’s humour and a plot that offers a lot of potential, but The English Teacher doesn’t quite live up to its promise. It’s never bad, but it’s rarely great either.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac