The Tutor (2023) Review
The Tutor was directed by Jordan Ross (Thumper, Mafia Movie Madness), written by Ryan King (Black Flies), and stars Garrett Hedlund (Burden, Dirt Music), Noah Schnapp (Stranger Things, Waiting for Anya), Jonny Weston (Beyond Skyline, Sugar), Kabby Borders (Pitching Tents, Toxic Shark), and Victoria Justice (Victorious, Afterlife of the Party). It’s about a tutor who accepts a job on behalf of a bright pupil, who turns out to be dangerously obsessive about more than just his grades.
The Plot: Everyone knows of the average teacher’s woes, but no one thinks of those who take individual gigs with the intent of focusing their mentorship; take that idea and spin it into a story of acuity gone wrong, and you have the first – and better – half of a movie that needed more guidance.
Gigs are flowing like normal for Ethan (Hedlund), a tutor whose reputation precedes him, but in the current economy, it takes more than a few careers launched on behalf of star students to pay for his and his pregnant girlfriend Annie’s (Justice) life. With summer break soon to start, Ethan’s boss lets him know of a job teaching Jackson (Schnapp) for $2,500 a day. The catch is that the educator must live on the premises for the duration of the lessons if after a week he still wants to teach the kid. Ethan takes the whole job despite Jackson’s apparent obsession and the odd presence of Jackson’s cousin Gavin (Weston) and Gavin’s friend Jenny (Borders) in place of parents.
King has a great start for The Tutor, but he also has issues with finding an angle to play, and that’s where the story starts slipping. Ethan soon finds himself on the receiving end of allegations pertaining to physical violence towards his student, shattering his life and leaving him to connect the dots. Certain expectations are met, like Jackson knowing more than previously thought, but it’s the script of The Tutor that fails here, as details trickle out about a decade-old incident that the movie contrives into relevance, turning the tables on the speaker/listener story by the end at the cost of believability.
Theoretically, the plot works, but King’s script strains itself to tidy the conclusion, forcing conventional beats and scenes into what started as an original study of obsession.
The Characters: Obviously, some of The Tutor’s characters aren’t who they seem to be, but on the baseline, there’s a lot about the principal cast to observe, which defines them the way a good thriller should.
Ethan is a largely normal guy who deals with normal guy stuff. He’s great at his job and works through problems intellectual and interpersonal alike, as a lot of the wealthy clientele he assists are… maladjusted; shaking off the stress with Annie, taking photos, and drinking more than he should. Financial woes are enough to make him look away from clear issues, which is authentic in the scenario. Hedlund plays Ethan (skillfully) with a real likeability that never feels false, a choice that hurts the movie more than one would expect, as his poorly revealed infidelity doesn’t gel with the established personality.
Jackson comes from money, so it’s not too surprising that he’s a little off. Being on the autism spectrum and living with a father who’s barely present has given him time to sharpen his intellectual abilities, which explains his quick attachment to Ethan at a surface level and justifies his intense reactions to failure (throwing money or his hands at problems) adequately. However, his handpicking of Ethan and later motivations seem more on the level of psychosis than autism, finding The Tutor going overboard with an at first believable character.
Annie isn’t given much to do other than nest in preparation for the child on the way. Justice makes her rapport with her boyfriend believable, but the script has other things in mind in the form of domestic unrest at the slightest wronging. She turns on a dime from full trust to assured suspicion despite a five-year gap from Ethan’s cheat. All of the characters here start out superbly, but the best work the cast has to offer doesn’t make up for a complete and incredulous upheaval of all characteristics.
The Thrills: Seeking to unsettle rather than startle is an intention that serves Ross well for much of the runtime in spite of the gaping holes these individual moments create. A good two thirds of The Tutor chill effectively in a ‘veiled schlockiness’ kind of way.
Money can make a person ignore as many things as it can make them do. Ethan’s first impressions are earnest and organic, as are those of the viewer. The absent parents, the bizarrely skimpy outfits on Jenny, and the lack of wifi at such an upscale residence fully register but are downplayed, at least by the character who keeps away from everyone, because of multiple pay raises for his services – which aren’t even needed since the kid passes with flying colours. Lines get crossed and there’s an all-too-convenient appearance by Jackson to set off the downward spiral, but the movie retains an air of discontent throughout the first act.
Watching Jackson dismantle Ethan’s personal life is entertaining in a lurid sense, but the uncertain motives are soon lost, diminishing the impact of what should have been a solid and linear view of a past finding its way into the present. The Tutor haphazardly makes mention of Jackson’s mother, whose contentious death from ten years ago, and stumbles the process by refusing to bring this up until it signals the chance to pull the rug out from under the audience. There’s still tension, but that soon dwindles alongside the intelligibility of the logic.
The third act is largely devoted to explaining crucial details that were needlessly left out of every prior moment, losing out on an engaging end. The Tutor sustains itself with its characters, but the suspense is an artifice by the end of the lesson.
The Technics: All of what came before might sound like a daytime TV movie or a Netflix original, and that’s certainly true in some respects, but not on the technical side, which is more stable.
At first, what sets The Tutor apart is its tone, which has some darkly comedic flairs to assist in setting aside some of the red flags that Jackson gives off. These moments never quite disappear, but they do unfortunately taper off by the end and leave the visual end to fend for itself. Thankfully, Ross has a regal location to get extensive mileage out of and Brian Rigney Hubbard (Paint it Black, Ambition) to help him capture it. With a soft lighting style and Ethan’s living situation changing throughout the feature, the cinematographer gets more to work with than most who shoot these kinds of movies.
Reality may be abandoned by Ryan King, but the rest of the crew maintains the sensibilities to maintain it in the visual sense. While they’re never over the top or flashy, the costumes and attire by Tora Eff (Mom and Dad, One Way) make Alabama’s doubling for New York work while also fitting the characters well. Attempts to give an outside perspective with scenes including a dinner with friends are present too, but they serve just as much purpose in justifying clunky reveals.
King doesn’t play fair with The Tutor, with the entire third act becoming a muddled mess. However, the first two are intriguing and well-acted so as to make the whole enterprise watchable, if not special.