Submission (Richard Levine, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel, in which a creative-writing professor at a small liberal-arts college in Vermont develops an inappropriate obsession with one of his students, Submission has a lot of things going for it, and one big thing working against it. The former are the cast, headlined by a superb Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) and Addison Timlin (Little Sister), as teacher and pupil, with excellent supporting work from Kyra Sedgwick (Big Sky) and others. The latter is the story, itself, where issues of sexual harassment and manipulation mix and mingle in a big jumble of confused motivations where the predator is the prey, or maybe not. I’m not sure this is the ideal movie for 2018.
Tucci’s Professor Swenson is an author with one good book under his belt, published 10 years prior. In spite of – or probably because of – his cushy tenured position, he is no longer able to write. When young, fidgety Angela shows up in his seminar with a novel-in-progress, he first reacts skeptically, but then changes his tune when he realizes how good it is. As he reads on, and the tale begins to focus on a high-school student’s crush on a teacher, he starts falling in love with Angela, and she with him. Will he throw away his great marriage for the sake of a rash affair? All the while, the specter of the school’s push to eliminate all forms of harassment looms over his actions. And then there’s Angela, herself: what does she really want, and why does she want it?
Director Levine (Every Day), whose second feature this is, has a fine way with actors and with individual scenes, but his screenplay can’t quite reconcile its inner contradictions. Still, Tucci and Timlin are amazing together, and the film is not without a certain sharp satire of academic bureaucracies. I couldn’t help but enjoy much of its tone, as well as the ebb and flow of the performances, even if I was troubled by the enigma of Angela. Perplexity is the evil step-child of complexity, and here Levine, searching for the second, all too often veers towards the first.