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First Look Review - THIS TEACHER

this teacher review
An Arabic-French woman's attempt to seek solace in remote upstate New York turns sour.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mark Jackson

Starring: Hafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Lucy Walters, Kevin Kane, Lev Gorn

this teacher poster


Mark Jackson's This Teacher is the very definition of a "challenging" film, both in its mission to make us think about bigotry via the sort of nuanced approach most American movies avoid, and in its refusal to present its protagonist in an easily accessible manner. Played brilliantly by French actress Hafsia Herzi, Hafsia is one of the most fascinating and psychologically confounding characters you'll see on screen this year.

Hafsia leaves Paris for New York City, where she has been invited to stay with her childhood friend Zahra (Sarah Kazemy), who is now a rising actress. From the off, it's clear that Hafsia isn't entirely welcome. Zahra and her boyfriend Heath (Gabe Fazio) are cold and distant towards her, and that night Hafsia is made to feel uncomfortable in the presence of Zahra's white middle class liberal friends, who can't have a normal conversation with her without expecting her to be an authority on the role of women in the Arab world. The unique mix of tone deafness and right on posturing of white liberals is exemplified by a toast Heath gives to Zahra, who has just landed a role playing a latina, despite being as close to Hispanic as a Swede, which Heath sees as a triumph of "diversity".


this teacher review

The following morning, Zahra has Hafsia read lines with her from her upcoming role. The confrontational nature of the script's dialogue seems to express Zahra's true feelings towards her old friend, whom she no longer wants to be around - "She smells like where we're from," Zahra complains to Heath. Zahra advises Hafsia to check into a nearby AirBnB apartment, which she will gladly pay for, but instead Hafsia books a remote cabin in upstate New York. There, surrounded by trees and seemingly alone, without electricity, Hafsia momentarily finds the peace she's looking for. That is until a young couple - New York cop Darren (Kevin Kane) and pre-school teacher Rose (Lucy Walters) - book into the neighbouring cabin.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Guest of Honour ]

This Teacher follows a strict three act structure, broken into three chapters labelled 'Early Life', 'Apparition' and 'Gospel'. The first segment deals with Hafsia's unwelcoming experiences in NYC; the second with her falling out with Zahra, who arrives at the cabin in an attempt to drive her back to the city and confesses that she no longer wants to have anything to do with the world Hafsia represents. The closing chapter resembles something close to a stage play, as Rose and Darren invite Hafsia to their cabin for a party. Getting drunk for the first time in her life, Hafsia lets slip that she's a Muslim, and her previously friendly American hosts react in a manner that isn't outwardly hostile yet telling enough in its awkwardness for Hafsia to fly into an alcohol fuelled rage.


this teacher review

Jackson's film examines bigotry in an admirably honest way without resorting to stereotypes. He plays with our notions of what bigots look like, thanks to a white liberal media that likes to distance itself from bigotry by portraying ignorance as the domain of the poor and uneducated. The only people who treat Hafsia like a person rather than an ideological avatar are John (Lev Gorn), the cabin's caretaker, and his sickly, elderly father. Clad in a shirt emblazoned with an American flag and the word "Liberty", John looks like the villain of most American movies concerned with prejudice, what liberals might call a "deplorable", and Jackson plays on our media-stoked preconceptions in a terrifying set-piece that is later revealed to be something entirely different to what we initially assumed. It's a clever way of exposing our prejudices and misconceptions. I consider myself a tolerant person, and I don't fall into either conservative or liberal camps, but I'm ashamed to admit I fell for Jackson's ruse.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - The Uncertain Kingdom ]

I'm not entirely sure I bought the relationship between Hafsia and Rose and Darren. I can see what Jackson is trying to do here, portraying the married couple as the sort of people who are warm and accommodating until they realise they don't share someone else's beliefs, but it doesn't gel with the reality of Islamophobia, which is based more often than not on prejudice towards race rather than religion (the sort of Americans who dislike Muslims aren't exactly fans of Mexicans either, despite the latter's Christianity). Given Hafsia's appearance, it's difficult to believe that Rose and Darren wouldn't immediately assume she's a Muslim, and surely the penny would drop once she reveals she doesn't drink alcohol? After displaying so much subtlety and nuance up to this point, it's disappointing when This Teacher explodes into crucifix versus hijab histrionics in its closing moments.


this teacher review

While This Teacher broaches some very serious issues, it's not short on laughs. Herzi displays a unique sense of comic timing, and much humour is derived from Hafsia's very Gallic bluntness to the bemusement of her American companions. Asked how her first night alone was, Hafsia bluntly replies "Fucking scary!" in the most adorably coarse way. There's a hilarious sight gag involving a dog sitting in the lap of a decidedly uncomfortable Hafsia, while a mission to charge her phone by breaking into a neighbouring cabin with electricity descends into something approaching a mix of bedroom farce and thriller set-piece.

What keeps us glued to the action is Hafsia, a character like few others I've seen recently. I've always been drawn to protagonists who are human trainwrecks over those "strong, inspiring" types that actors always like to gush about, and Hafsia is a hot mess. As she exclaims while arguing with Zahra, she knows what she wants because she can acknowledge that she doesn't know what she wants. Zahra claims to have her shit together, but she's revealed to be even more of a disaster than the former friend she looks down on, who is clearly under the thumb of Heath. Hafsia is also refreshingly enigmatic. Ask any man and he'll tell you that even the women he knows most intimately are something of a mystery to him, yet women in movies are so often drawn in a way that makes them all too easy for men to figure out. I haven't a clue what's going through Hafsia's mind at any point, which makes her more relatable than 99% of female protagonists.

This Teacher is on US DVD/VOD June 9th. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




2020 movie reviews