The film is anchored by Tiefenbach’s compellingly anxious performance as Hanan Harchol. With a slender frame, dubious gaze, and restless demeanor Tiefenbach convincingly plays a teacher in constant distress. The supporting characters also bring their all. Tyler Hollinger’s Mr. McKenna is comically caustic. Aurora Leonard’s Ana Martinez is compassionate. And Leslie Hendrix’s Ms. Murry is delightfully flinty.
About a Teacher isn’t the first film to showcase the far-reaching influence of a teacher on a bunch of struggling teenagers. Hilary Swank‘s Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers instantly comes to mind. But About a Teacher innately feels more veristic because the drama isn’t needlessly heightened. The perspective is purposefully limited to the blossoming teacher. Harchol concocts an understated script that deftly enlivens a teacher’s stress at school, and how that stress commonly pours into their home life.
More time could’ve been spent at home, but the burden of teaching is made fascinatingly visible. Kai Dekassian’s modest cinematography turns viewers into a passive observer, as a trembling camera captures an overwhelmed Hanan in and out of the classroom. There’s some light humor to be found in Hanan’s inexperience, and how hard he’s trying to figure it all out. A line like “I feel like I’m living in a warzone,” is both funny and telling. Teaching certainly comes with chaos and doubt. A teacher has to make an effort to establish dominance and schoolwork, without losing the students. The acerbic Mr. McKenna drives this point home: “Well, if your kids aren’t motivated, it’s because you’re not motivating them.” Nobody, not even a teacher, is perfect.
“…anchored by Tiefenbach’s compellingly anxious performance…”
Mateo (Joseph Diaz), Lamar (Cedric Preval), Julio (Caleb Vasquez), Malik (Skivon Hardy), Sophie (Sterling Morales), and Carlos (Ramon Nuñez) are all students who open up to their teacher. Hanan doesn’t misprize their situation or supply a clear-cut solution, but he listens and offers his unadorned opinion. He also encourages them to mesh their experiences into film, hoping it’ll help them through their plights. Students who learn visually or students who have a story to tell can look to film as an act of healing or defiance.
There lies the beating heart at the center of About a Teacher, and I can’t help but relate that back to the people involved in the project. Without knowing who, the film features many of Harchol’s former students in the cast and crew. The fact that they would come back to bring his vision to life is inspiring. Plus, a bulk of Harchol’s students won nearly over $200,000 in prizes for their films and were accepted into prestigious film schools.
About a Teacher is a lovely, impassioned, and undeniably human film that honors the teaching profession. There’s no guarantee that a person will find comfort in the career of a teacher, especially considering the potential lack of respect from students, the school board, or even from parents. But the portrayal of Hanan Harchol teaches us all that first-year teachers have a lot to learn. Then again, none of us stop learning. No one is really an A+ human being.
"…a deeply personal drama about the challenges of teaching from the perspective of a new inner-city teacher."