Sunday, January 24, 2016

Slamdance ’16: The Lesson

Mr. Gale would probably blame Rousseau for what he is about to do, because his advocacy of a child-centered education eventually facilitated the rise of hellions like Fin and his pals. Their humiliated teacher will also cite the Hobbes’ argument regarding the nasty and brutish requiring a strong hand. Somehow Nietzsche gets off scot-free, but Fin is in for a whole lot of painful karma in Ruth Platt’s The Lesson (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Fin is a rotten kid, but it is easy to understand why. Since his sainted mother passed away and his abusive father took some high-paying international construction job, Fin now lives with his loutish brother and his Eastern European girlfriend. The brother is no prize either. Fin silently resents the way he psychologically dominates Mia, but getting involved is not his thing. He certainly does not interfere when his pondscum mate Joel demeans Mr. Gale in class. However, the last time Joel does that really will be the last time. Fed up with their delinquency and ignorance, Mr. Gale violently abducts the two lads to subject them to a lesson from Hostel U.

Setting up class in some sort of workshop, Mr. Gale commences lecturing on Rousseau, Hobbes, Blake, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with the aid of a nail gun. Being in better shape than the badly battered Joel, Fin will get the full benefit of Mr. Gale’s instruction. You had better believe he is listening now, especially since he knows there will be a test later.

The Lesson might sound like run-of-the-mill torture porn, but it is way smarter and more complex than that. Frankly, Platt has more than a little sympathy for Mr. Gale—and more than a little criticism for the soulless nihilism of Fin’s social circle. The fact that only Mia realizes and cares that he is missing is glaringly significant.

Mr. Gale’s high stakes lectures are also razor-sharply written. Although Gale is most definitely talking down to his captives, Platt never dumbs-down the dialogue. As a result, we get capsule introductions to Rousseau and Hobbes, as well as a close reading of Blake (although Platt sort of lets him off the hook too. Frankly, his tendency to objectify the very proles he made such a show championing could have contributed to Gale’s unhinged remedial instruction). Regardless, the audience is only too keenly aware Fin and Joel sort of have it coming.

Robert Hands is pretty terrific as Mr. Gale, somehow making him massively scary and acutely tragic, all at the same time. Michaela Prchlová is also a major discovery as the self-esteem-challenged Mia. Her character has a development arc that is quite remarkable for a horror movie (to use the genre label loosely). Evan Bendall is also solid as Fin, but oddly, the film is not such a great showcase for him. Platt has him mostly sneering and jeering in the first act and then turns loose Mr. Gale to open up a can on him for the rest of the film.

The Lesson is indeed a smart genre film, but it is still plenty bloody. Think of it as To Sir, with Pain. Platt holds a Hobbesian mirror up to nature, keeping viewers locked in her vice-like grip. Taut and rather daring, The Lesson is enthusiastically recommended for horror fans when it screens again this Tuesday (1/26) as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.