An understated and deeply felt tribute to teachers, and it achieves that delicate balance between naturalism and ever so slightly heightened drama.
Above all, About a Teacher is a personal tale. This is obvious when approaching it from just about any angle: The story almost exclusively follows a teacher at a New York City public high school specializing in the arts, and every second of that story is spent in his company. That alone suggests that every part of this story either came or was built from memories of the time its protagonist’s real-life counterpart spent as a film professor at a very similar educational institution, if in fact nothing else about this movie’s behind-the-scenes details already suggested that. After all, the central character is Hanan Harchol, who also wrote and directed the movie and appears in a cameo at the end as the school official that, after nearly three years of grief, offered him some closure.
If all that isn’t enough, Harchol casts Dov Tiefenbach as himself in the production, meaning that the filmmaker had to oversee a professional actor playing himself and the actor faced the challenge of playing his own director. It doesn’t get much more personal than all these scenarios, and the good news is that there isn’t much bad news to share about the final product. Yes, the production is scrappy, the budget was likely quite low, and the performances from the supporting actors occasionally belie the sincerity of the material. Still, that sincerity remains, and so does a big heart that reveals a surprising honesty in the film’s perspective, philosophy, and message. If one-half of it treads material we have seen before, the other half is quite unexpected.
That first half of anticipated material has to do with Hanan’s students, who, for the first three weeks of his tenure, are a rowdy bunch with little interest in actually completing their work. One student, Mateo (Joseph Diaz), is always asleep in class. Another, Lamar (Cedric Preval), is so happy to receive a low D on an assignment that his entire situation causes Hanan to wake up in a cold sweat (in a morbidly funny moment, he looks up the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder on his work computer). Sophie (Sterling Morales) longs to connect with her distant and incarcerated father for reasons attached to her current home situation. None of this is particularly new, but the film does present them as honest stories existing just outside Hanan’s view.
Eventually, he does learn how to bring about the best in his students, primarily with the help of fellow teacher Anna (Aurora Leonard), but those lessons . He learns why Mateo sleeps in class, and the reasons are both heartbreaking and nearly inescapable, leading to a complicated educational future. He coaches Lamar to be a better filmmaker but to the detriment of the boy’s other grades. As for Sophie, her situation is left to dangle off a cliff of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Hanan spars with a department head (played by Leslie Hendrix) who seems determined to overwhelm him and his fellow teachers with work, and at home, his relationship with wife Rachel (Kate Eastman) is strained by his lack of attention paid to their family plan, which was derailed by taking on this taxing job.
This half of the story is far less easy to predict, perhaps because we are more accustomed to the stories of the shaping of young minds and less to the stories of the teachers doing that hard work. Tiefenbach’s performance is notable for how the actor communicates the strain of the increasing, almost comical number of responsibilities placed upon him by the school administration to come up with lesson plans, grade schoolwork, fill out questionnaires, and provide statistical data on a daily basis. About a Teacher is an understated and deeply felt tribute to teachers, and it achieves that delicate balance between naturalism and ever so slightly heightened drama.