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Sensitive and never sensational, streaming series ‘A Teacher’ depicts a predatory school affair

Kate Mara and Nick Robinson do effective work as an immoral teacher and a teen boy convinced their illegal relationship is love.

The relationship of Claire (Kate Mara) and Eric (Nick Robinson) begins with tutoring in “A Teacher.”
FX

On the surface, it sounds like a typical high school romance. There’s a new arrival in town, and she quickly enters into a flirtatious back and forth with a handsome, popular senior who is clearly smitten with her. A stolen kiss escalates into a backseat tryst on the night of the Homecoming Dance, and from that point on it’s full speed ahead with a passionate and complicated and stormy relationship in which both parties become consumed with their feelings for one another.

But here’s the thing. This isn’t the story of a teenage romance — it’s a chronicle of an unethical, illegal, predatory, criminal act on the part of a teacher who is grooming her student and taking advantage of him, with no real concern for the immediate and lifelong consequences of her actions. This is the premise of the new FX on Hulu limited series “A Teacher,” which deftly handles the delicate and incendiary material without indulging in sensationalism or titillation. Writer-director Hannah Fidell, adapting and expanding her 2013 indie film of the same name, delivers a provocative and resonant and layered treatment of a sensitive subject, with Kate Mara (“Pose”) and Nick Robinson (“Love, Simon”) turning in some of the finest work of their respective careers as the teacher in her early 30s and the 17-year-old student whose “affair” will impact their lives and the lives of so many around them for years to come.

Mara’s Claire is a high school English teacher who returns home to Austin, Texas, for a new gig, accompanied by her husband Matt (Ashley Zuckerman), who’s still pursuing a fading dream of becoming a rock star and seems less than enthusiastic about Claire’s desire to start a family. Robinson’s Eric is a smart, likable kid who lives with his single mother and two younger brothers, and works a part-time job to help make ends meet. If Eric doesn’t get a scholarship, there’s no way he’ll be able to afford tuition at the University of Texas — and so he asks Claire if she’ll tutor him. Within the first couple of episodes, legit tutoring sessions and innocent rides home segue into longing glances, and then Eric kisses Claire and she rebuffs him, but not as firmly as she should — and things spiral out of control at the aforementioned Homecoming Dance when Claire lures Eric into her car, commands him to get into the back seat, and initiates a sexual encounter.

Claire and Eric delude themselves into thinking this is the romance of their lifetimes. Eric tells himself, “I’m the mother------- man!” as he looks into the mirror, and Claire blushes and glows like a schoolgirl in the early throes of love. But she’s not. She’s Eric’s teacher, and she’s an adult, and she is at the controls every step of the way, as the series always makes clear. Even when Claire and Eric slip away for a getaway weekend at a cabin, complete with sun-dappled shared moments and intense conversations about their respective (and equally troubled) pasts and hot sex, there’s an impending sense of doom and darkness, because we know this can’t possibly end well.

We’re only halfway through the 10-episode run when Claire recklessly and drunkenly confides in her friend and fellow teacher Kathryn (Marielle Scott) and Kathryn is horrified and immediately reports the crime. Instead of dwelling on the scandal and the trial and the immediate consequences, “A Teacher” quickly zips forward to the aftermath, with Eric partying hard in his freshman year at UT and Claire getting out of jail after serving six months. We follow them on their separate journeys, as they each spiral into self-destructive behavior, before they eventually cross paths some 10 years after their initial meeting.

The more we know about Claire, the more we understand how damaged she is, and she’s not an entirely unsympathetic character — but we never lose sight of the reality she isn’t the victim in this story. Mara turns in finely calibrated work as a woman who says she made a “mistake” and might never fully come to grips with the damage she inflicted on Eric and others, while Robinson is equally effective as a boy and then a young man permanently wounded by the events of his senior year. When Eric comes home to Austin for his 10-year high school reunion and sees his brother, who is now 17, the same age as Eric was when Claire preyed on him, it finally hits him and hits him hard: he WAS just a kid, and Claire should have known better and let him be a kid.