Talk about timing. Although the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had not taken hold when the new sexual harassment-themed drama Submission premiered last June at the Los Angeles Film Festival, there probably could not be a better moment for its release. As I say in my video review above, this story of a college professor who becomes involved with one of his prize students and then is sued for sexual harassment hits the hot-button topic right on, but does it in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white telling of the story.
Stanley Tucci stars as Ted Swenson, a formerly successful author who has run into writers block and now teaches creative writing at a small East Coast college. Partly out of professional envy and partly out of attraction, he takes up with one of his students, Angela (Addison Timlin), who he feels shows real promise — both on the page and in bed as it turns out. Ted is happily married to Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), who works part time at the college as a nurse, and he doesn’t seem the type who would stray. However, his own dire creative rut and the lure of a seductive young woman he can also mentor leads to a disastrous decision and a sexual encounter that ends up turning very dark for him when Angels feels he broke a promise to show her manuscript to his high-powered New York publisher (Peter Gallagher). Soon he is in trouble at school and at home when all the details are revealed and his life turns upside down.
Writer and director Richard Levine bases his ever-so-timely script on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel, which itself is inspired by the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel in which a meek college professor gets caught up with a sexy nightclub performer. The director saw the vehicle as the perfect storm of today’s society as seen through the prism of a campus where obsession, manipulation, harassment, gender politics and our PC world collide, and that is exactly what happens here even as there are no real villains. Angela isn’t completely a victim or an innocent. Ted, misguided as he is, isn’t totally a predator or abusing his position. Both are three-dimensional characters caught up in a somewhat tawdry but unfortunate situation in a film that is sure to spark conversation no matter whose side you might take.
Levine, who worked as a writer-producer for seven seasons on Nip/Tuck among other shows, steers the tale away from melodrama and into some fascinating waters that uncannily hit right at the heart of a very hot topic. He’s also fortunate to have a terrific cast: Tucci nails Ted with just the right nuance of a frustrated artist stuck teaching others when he might hope he could repeat the promise he once showed himself; Timlin makes his attraction to her entirely credible but doesn’t come off as a luring Lolita, but rather a smart young woman with her eye on the prize who sees her professor as a route to get there; and Sedgwick is great as the loving but then betrayed wife, and she lets Ted have it in a riveting dinner scene — she takes no prisoners. Among the supporting cast, Gallagher and teaching colleague Janeane Garofalo have some fine if brief moments to shine.
This is a small, adult film that will have smart specialty audiences thinking. What’s wrong with that? It also happens to be highly entertaining. Jared Ian Goldman and Wren Arthur produced. Paladin and Great Point Media put it in limited release Friday before expanding to many major markets the following week.