Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lifetime again examines the "set-up" of a teacher in "A Teacher's Crime"


Lifetime Television has dealt with this troubling theme before: to wit, a teacher (a female) has to defend trumped up charges or accusations of inappropriate involvement with a minor student. The media reports on real life incidents of this nature seem to have exploded since about 2005. We usually hear stories about the reluctance of men to enter teaching because of this kind of “risk”, but Lifetime, since it is (supposedly) a women’s film channel, likes to set its heroines up.

Tonight the film is “A Teacher’s Crime” but at least the teacher doesn’t wind up in a jail cell, the kind where the light stays on all night. The film’s production values are ho-hum, supposedly taking place near Columbia, MD (near Baltimore) but obviously filmed in the Vancouver area. It’s directed by Robert Malenfant, and written by Christine Conradt and Corbin Mezner. I have to add that recently I reviewed Lifetime’s “Two Kissels” movie, and that was a “real” mystery movie, that really should have been an “indie” theatrical release. But not this one.

In fact, the movie is more about the contortions of the extortion and blackmail scheme (and murder, without Hitchcock’s finesse) than about the more likely perils of a classroom high school teacher. Ashley Jones plays Mrs. Carrie Ryans, already in a custody battle post-divorce. She teaches history and a couple of the classroom scenes (like her explanation of how Truman handled the Korean War) have some interesting subtexts. Erik Knudsen gives a gentle performance of the kid Jeremy, raised by a low-level mob-connected uncle, who is trying to drag the kid from college prep to carry on a life or organized crime. The uncle does give the "Life's not fair" speech. Another backstory concerns Jeremy’s father, who was killed in Bosnia when he was a little boy. The uncle has accepted the “family responsibility” and then demanded his payback.

So the kid, at the urging of his uncle, sets up quasi intimate situations (started by tampering with the teacher’s car), with another hired goon photographing the compromising scenes to set up the blackmail. Yes, she is threatened with being on the registry characterized by that forbidden “s.o.” word and living the scarlet letter for the rest of her life.

The other interesting part of the story is the way the uncle “researched” the teacher’s background, not on the Internet, Facebook or Myspace, but just old fashion trade magazines. The film does demonstrate the privacy and “reputation” issues that still exist in the bricks and mortar world as well as online.

The film’s obvious Lifetime predecessor was “Student Seduction” (2003), directed by Peter Svatek, written by Edithe Swensen. In that film, a young married female chemistry teacher (Elizabeth Berkley) somewhat innocently pays too much attention to a male student (Corey Sevier) who turns on her with aggressive advances and, guess what, she’s arrested and prosecuted. That story also has the auto repair scene, and a careless social hamburger scene in at a public Ruby Tuesday’s or some such bistro. This is a larger film, made with Lionsgate, and it ought to have been a theatrical release, as it comes much closer to depicting the practical risk that teachers can face, when it could be very hard for them to defend themselves. I saw this film the day after I started substitute teaching in 2004.

These films don't exactly encourage people to go into teaching (and some teachers say they are flatly offended by them). Do so at your own risk, the movies say. Because life's just not fair. It's not supposed to be.

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