Marcelino Islas Hernández’s strange, affecting film Clases de Historia (History Lessons) is a darkly comic tale about a teacher’s burgeoning friendship with a young student. It has elements that draw from the likes of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude or Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, but provides a unique and often powerful story that proves you can have older teachers learn new tricks.
Veteran actor Verónica Langer plays Vero, a history teacher talking of the past to a group of students who seemingly couldn’t care less about even the present. When the sulky, taciturn Eva (Renata Vaca) shows up in her class, the teacher takes a quiet interest, finding something compelling in the morose teen. After a confrontation leaves them both isolated from the school, the two end up connecting, resulting in a unhealthy but productive co-dependence.
The story has plenty of major swings for both characters as each sucks out some life from the other. Vero’s hapless husband is kindly but distant, while her children are wrapped in their own issues. Suffering from a quickening of her own mortality, Vero lets loose her inhibitions, finding a guide in Eva’s anarchistic spirit.
Eva, meanwhile, seeks adult guidance in whatever form she can get, attempting in her own way to ease her self-destruction. The film gains most of its drama through this turmoil, but is most effective thanks to pitch perfect performances by the two leads.
Hernández manages the tone quite admirably, keeping the characters engaging even when being brittle, brutal or obnoxious. In tiny moments, from the reaching for a remote control to switching sides of bed, the filmmaker finds probing insights into the complacency of relationships and the sublimated desires that one may choose to ignore for a socially acceptable life.
At its core, History Lessons is a story about history where the past is actually forgotten, where feelings are buried only surface after the fact. While the ending doesn’t quite live up to the build-up, the film showcases a prominent Mexican actress at the top of her game and a storyline that speaks to our own reticence to choose happiness over what society considers the way forward.