Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2017)
As someone who works in education, I know how terrifying classrooms can be, though more in a figurative sense. 2015’s The Lesson makes the horror literal.
16-year-old Fin Tindall (Evan Bendall) grows up in a difficult family circumstance. His deadbeat father (Michael Swatton) works overseas, and his mother (Charlotte Croft) died. This leaves him in the custody of his obnoxious older brother Jake (Tom Cox), whose girlfriend Mia (Michaela Prchalová) becomes Fin’s object of desire.
In an attempt to fit in, Fin bonds with some local delinquents, and they abuse the teachers at their school. This backfires when instructor Mr. Gale (Robert Hands) finally can’t stand their shenanigans, so he plots revenge against the teens.
Though touted as a horror movie, one shouldn’t expect immediate thrills from The Lesson. Indeed, the entire first act gives us the impression we’ll watch a sensitive coming of age drama, as the tale focuses almost exclusively on the teenage struggles of poor Fin.
Just when I started to think I accidentally put a British remake of Boyhood into my player, the tone shifts, and this happens literally out of nowhere. I don’t mean that the film fails to build the potential conflict between the kids and Mr. Gale, as it does give us clear signs of that – as well as hints that Mr. Gale may not be especially stable mentally.
But the scene in which he begins his quest for retribution does pop up without warning, and I like that shift. If you weren’t aware of the movie’s synopsis, you wouldn’t see the change in focus/tone, as Lesson doesn’t telegraph Mr. Gale’s plans.
Heck, even though I did realize The Lesson would shift toward horror, I didn’t anticipate the direct plot progression. So few movies offer actual surprises that this adds zest to The Lesson.
Can the film provide much after it gets beyond some unexpected bits? Not really, as once The Lesson delves into Mr. Gale’s diabolical endeavors, it lacks much narrative purpose or heft.
Though the movie tries to have it both ways. The Lesson gets into sadistic violence while it continues to aspire to its sensitive character drama ways.
This approach doesn’t work, so the film’s final hour hews much more closely to the Saw series than anything else. We watch interminable scenes in which Mr. Gale tortures Fin, all in the interest of “education”.
That’s the hook here: Mr. Gale incapacitates the boys so he can “teach them” without outside distractions. This gimmick doesn’t go much of anywhere – it hints at Mr. Gale’s pathology as a teacher frustrated by his inability to reach students, but it mainly feels like an excuse for cringe-inducing violence.
The Lesson attempts irony because Mr. Gale’s sadistic methods work, as Fin actually gains knowledge along the way. Does the end justify the means? Probably not, but that twist adds an interesting complication.
Though not all that interesting, and various curveballs can’t change the general tedium that impacts The Lesson. This comes across as a plot outline in search of a story, as though writer/director Ruth Platt invented the notion of the sadistic teacher and then fit in a narrative around it.
Sure, The Lesson can seem awfully erudite, what with all of Mr. Gale’s literary references and allusions, but this feels like windowdressing – as do the various dreamy character moments. Despite all the attention paid to Fin’s background and life, we don’t ever really get to know him, so our understanding of the role remains superficial.
At its heart, The Lesson is basic “torture porn” gussied up with indie film clothes. The movie comes with a provocative theme and some unsettling moments, but it fails to coalesce into a consistently compelling tale.