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After 20 years Mr. Gale is at the end of his tether. Maybe it’s the choice of school or his methods but the students are all out of control and running wild. But instead of changing tact, working on his discipline methods or finding new ways to engage with young minds he’s about to take out his frustrations with a radically different approach. It’s going to involve a lot of DIY tools and cable ties. There’s no heart warming coming of age drama to be seen here.
The Lesson (not to be confused with the 2014 Bulgarian drama) is a blend of teen domestic melodrama and gruesome kidnap plot. This is an unusual mixture from the outset and it never really converges into a satisfying whole. Just because the storyline involves education doesn’t mean there is anything to be learnt from it I’m afraid. The main characters Fin and his friend Joel are not the nicest teenagers. In fact their school seems to be a place where control is missing entirely and they’ve decided to cater exclusively to apathetic delinquents. It doesn’t seem to be a stereotypical rough end of town institution and yet vandalism, theft and drinking are all present and correct which means it all comes off as cartoonish at best. Among this foul mouthed bunch are the protagonists which isn’t a great start, and it doesn’t take long for their antics to become tedious.
The script vaguely attempts to develop Fin and his older brother Jake by adding a subplot about their absent father, but a series of black and white flashbacks never explain exactly what happened between them and it’s never explored to provide a worthwhile backstory or give them any sympathetic traits. Adventure Time this is not. The film spends far too much time on this dead end story along with several other fruitless tangents, which unfortunately seem to exist so they can push the running time to 90 minutes. Jake’s girlfriend Mia also comes into play early on to round off the central cast for similar reasons. As well as having her own relationship problems on the romantic front and with her own family, she seems to be developing feelings for Fin which just builds up the soap opera atmosphere. Calling it a love triangle is probably exaggerating things. This all comes to a rather abrupt end in the second act however when Fin and Joel find themselves in the clutches of Mr. Gale.
After a lot of padding we get to the main event, an English teacher’s basement revenge. It’s bound to be someone’s fantasy I guess. As a premise I suppose this isn’t too bad, although they go to such extremes to make the titular lesson justified that choosing sides is not really an option and they just seem as bad as each other. The energetic performance by Robert Hands as the teacher is the main piece that works and soon the violence and literature quotation sessions are in full swing. The core concept is held together by the vengeful Mr. Gale’s endless rhetoric of classical sound bites and notions about the nature of human inspiration as he tries to force ideas from Golding and Blake on the unwilling class members. His long winded tirades at least feel like the writers have done some homework to make for a convincing blend of torture and dictionary drama.
However this minor highlight starts to bring attention to the big weakness here which again is that the other plot elements exist to stretch the idea to feature length. I enjoy a bit of debate on the ideas of irony and allegory as much as anyone but it’s not enough to fill a storyline in this case. The distractions from the first part of the movie soon reappear with Mia’s drunken mother arriving, her domestic dispute with Jake coming to a head, and to tie all this together a quick coincidence driven conclusion is thrown in at the last minute so that all the hammers and nails can get in a few last blows. It really drags things out by including several odd music video moments where characters walk alone at night or stare into space. They do try and spice things up when Fin begins to have visions of Joel escaping his bonds but this has no narrative purpose besides a quick dream sequence.
In the end the big conclusion lacks any sense of a character arc and doesn’t offer the kind of simple redemption or realisation moments that could have been expected. There are hints at what might have been here, and despite an uneven sound mix the look of the main underground set piece is moody with effective high contrast lighting. They could have added far more depth to all of the characters considering that ideas of motivation are actually discussed in the dialogue itself. It’s all so thinly stretched, and ultimately the real lesson here is probably that if you have a fun idea and know a few highly strung people working in classrooms; you probably should just make a short film and move on.