By Sherilyn Connelly
By Inkoo Kang
By Carolina del Busto
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Melissa Anderson
By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
Jennifer Montgomery's semiautobiographical Art for Teachers of Children positions itself as a dispassionate, disquietingly original take on underage sex and the line between child pornography and art. From the get-go the film assails your notions of exactly what the age of consent is -- or ought to be -- as Montgomery opens with a montage of still photographs of nude prepubescents, in effect challenging you to draw the art/porno line for yourself. Then, narrating the proceedings herself, the director launches into the tale of her fictional Jennifer -- an intelligent but insecure 14-year-old who has just left home to attend boarding school -- and Jennifer's affair with John, a married, 28-year-old dorm counselor.
John's a patient listener and a decent photographer, but he's also a haughty, manipulative creep who understands all too well the vulnerability of his adolescent charges. He subtly (by Jennifer's callow teen standards, at least) encourages Jennifer to seduce him, and then, when she complies, pretends he didn't see it coming. Like many girls at that awkward age, Jennifer has no clue how attractive she really is; she desperately seeks adult validation of her desirability. She practically begs John to rid her of her virginity, and volunteers to pose nude for his camera. Through it all she tolerates his pretentious, self-serving blather, and tries to convince herself that her schoolgirl crush is the real thing. She also becomes aware of the power of her sexuality.
Despite John's desire to keep the affair clandestine, it inevitably comes to light. He loses his wife and his job. Jennifer loses her naivete, graduates, outgrows John, becomes a successful artist in her own right, and pretty much puts the whole episode behind her. A dozen years or so pass. Suddenly the FBI decides to open an investigation into John's alleged child pornography activities; the feds try to coerce Jennifer into testifying against him, but despite her mixed emotions about her own liaison with the womanizing (girlizing?) photographer, she doesn't believe John capable of perversion. Montgomery has Jennifer confront both the law enforcement agency and her own ambivalent feelings about the art-versus-child-pornography conundrum.
Shot in grainy black-and-white with a shaky hand-held camera, Montgomery's visual style reflects her desire to create the illusion of objective distance. Amateurish but unaffected performances amplify the film's studied artlessness. This is a movie that goes the extra mile to appear unpretentious and to treat its potentially volatile subject matter as if it were nothing to get worked up about. This deadpan approach allows Montgomery's film to take a long hard look at the age of consent without lapsing into the kind of fractious hard-line arguments that frequently characterize that issue.
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