The Lesson (Slamdance Review)
Our eyes see bloody chaos as our ears are treated to rapid-fire literary musings in The Lesson, a pedagogic dark fantasy about a teacher driven so mad by his rotten, closed-minded students that he decides the only way to unlock their learning potential is to pin them to their desks—literally, with a big, fat nailgun. Director Ruth Platt juxtaposes torture-porn trappings with heaping helpings of high-minded brain food, a curious pairing that works to great effect. It’s a bloody British parable with wicked, well-written dialogue and a surprising measure of visual sophistication that won’t be for everyone (the squeamish, as well as those in search of simple-minded thrills, will likely choose to skip class partway through) but will be a joy for those willing to test their movie-watching mettle.
Fin (Evan Bendall) has just only turned sixteen, and already his life’s fallen to shambles. His father’s working abroad, his mother’s dead, and his brother, Jake (Tom Cox), who wants nothing more than to kick Fin out of their childhood home so that he and his European girlfriend, Mia (Michaela Prchalova) can have the house to themselves. The poor boy leads a loveless life, the only bright spots being the occasional, sneaky sign of affection from Mia and the minor mayhem he causes around town with his best mate, Joel (Rory Coltart).
The boys are a pair of dickheads, vandalizing private property for kicks and bullying anyone unlucky enough to catch their eye, including their uptight English teacher, Mr. Gale (Robert Hands). They sleep through his lectures, bark at him without a shred of respect and even subject him to physical abuse, sticking chewed up gum in his hair out of sheer boredom, in front of the whole class. On Fin’s 16th birthday, the pair are treated to a hard life lesson when Gale finally snaps, kidnapping them with two swift bops to the head. Fin wakes up in a dusty garage, covered in blood, tied to a desk next to an unconscious Joel as Mr. Gale declares class in session and starts scribbling on a whiteboard. Using torture tools as motivation, he forces lessons of ethics, philosophy and literary greats like William Blake, John Milton and Thomas Hobbes on the bruised and beaten Fin. The boys’ only hope is Mia, who’s taken to the stormy streets in search of her missing housemate.
The scenes outside Gale’s gore-garage feel a bit dull in comparison. Fin’s domestic issues with his brother and his lukewarm romance with Mia lack the soulfulness and fire seen in other indies that tackle similar domestic-dysfunction material. Hands is terrific, making every scene he’s in better than the last as Gale gets nuttier and nuttier and more frightening by the minute. There aren’t any big scares to be found in The Lesson, but the film’s real gift is that it’ll give your mind something to chew on for a few days. The value of education, the tragedy of untapped potential and the intellectual downslide of future generations are just a few of the litany of ideas Platt brings to the table. As fascinating as it is to have all of these interesting concepts and philosophies explored so thoroughly in a genre movie, it can sometimes feel like sensory overload when we’re also meant to stomach watching teenagers get impaled over and over. This is surely by design and meant to put us in Fin’s shoes, but there’s only so much one can take before the brain turns to jelly and the movie starts to lose its grip.