New Streaming Releases: The Historian (2014)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of Historia Films)

When presented poorly, self-insert characters can be painfully hard to connect with and watch. Their experiences and the axes they seek to grind can almost be too specific for viewers to relate to. Being relatable or likable isn't the end all, though it certainly helps, but it's incumbent upon a creator that if they're going to pull from their life, they at least need to make what they're pulling from compelling. Unfortunately for multi-hyphenate Miles Doleac's debut, The Historian, none of that is accomplished.

Shot and initially released in 2014, The Historian (now streaming for free on Prime and Tubi) pulls from Doleac's time as a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. As writer, director, producer and star, almost every bit of this film fails or succeeds because he's essentially adapting parts of his life. He says as much in the introduction for the trailer of the film. His goal in making this film was to rail against what he perceives as the problems in academia. That's as interesting as it sounds, meaning it's not. He attempts to sprinkle some interpersonal drama on top of his two hour lecture but make no mistake about it, this is a deeply cynical and angry film whose only point is to ask "why is education lacking these days?" and whose answer is a muddled mix of "bureaucratic bullshit" "kids these days!" and bizarrely, "Women!"

Doleac's Ben Rhodes, fresh off of a separation from his wife, takes a temp job as history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Tracking one year at the job, Rhodes falls in and out of love, faces push back from his academia higher ups and learns that if anyone can make a difference in education, it's one middle-aged white guy.

(Image Courtesy of Historia Films)

Many problems exist in Doleac's feature but the biggest by far is him. His performance as Rhodes is awful injecting zero personality or pathos into his protagonist. We barely see him teach his students and when we do, it's so uninspiring that when the final reel shows enthusiastic students flooding his class at the start of new term, it's hard not to fall out of your chair laughing. Doleac does zero work presenting Rhodes as anything other than a whiny, petulant man and then expects us to cheer when he "saves" the history department. I'm still unclear on how exactly he even accomplishes that.  

Why is he whiny and petulant? Women of course! If there's a single through-line to The Historian it's that Miles Doleac should never be allowed to write women again. The wife he's separating from? She had a miscarriage, suffered a breakdown and began cheating on him. Every scene the two share is spent with Rhodes shouting at her about her terrible she is. We never see or hear her point of view, there's never a reckoning. She's terrible, she ruined the relationship and goddammit why can't she understand that?? It's such a gross, misogynistic stance to take and veers dangerously close to blaming the miscarriage on her too. 

The other women don't fare any better. Any time Miles walks into a room, jaws drop and there might as well be a record scratch. It would be funny if the star of the film didn't write and direct it as well. He's entangled in a love triangle (of course he is) with a grad student Anna (Jillian Taylor) and science professor Stacey (Leticia Jimenez) and it's about as predictable as you'd expect. Doleac writes Anna as an almost child-like, ethereal being which leads to some of the most cringe inducing moments in the film. She flutters in and out of the film saying things like "holy shitballs!!" and in her more contemplative moments, goes on prolonged soliloquies about the importance of history. She's the definition of Manic Pixie Dream Girl and is so obviously written by a man, she may as well be wearing a sign that says "IDEAL WOMAN". Stacy on the other hand exists solely to sidle up to Miles at the pool, drool all over him and then have sex with him throughout the film. He attempts to give her a too-cool personality that espouses wisdom to him post-sex but again, his grasp on women or how to write them is non-existent. 

(Image Courtesy of Historia Films)

There's one saving grace to this mess and it's William Sadler, debasing himself by appearing in this self indulgent garbage, who gives a genuinely great performance as the head of the history department, Valerian Hadley. Hadley is a deeply cynical and angry man. When he's not teaching, he's at home taking care of his father (John Cullum) who's suffering from dementia. Their scenes are legitimately heartbreaking and Sadler gives the kind of performance that this film absolutely does not deserve. Doleac creates him as Rhodes' foil, clashing at every turn over what teaching history is supposed to be and who it's supposed to speak to. Hadley is given no discernible chances at redemption, instead being written as so cartoonishly evil, that when he is given that moment it's impossible to buy because Doleac did none of the work getting him there. It's solely on Sadler's shoulders and it's almost a miracle that he's able to make something worthwhile out of such a poorly written character.

This might be the angriest I've ever been watching a film. Doleac clearly has a point of view and on some level, maybe there's merit to wanting to dissect and explore the many problems facing academia. The arts are underfunded and disinterest in them is only growing. The problem with The Historian is that Doleac comes to the worst conclusions imaginable. He wants to simultaneously place the blame on the young being too disinterested and the old being too out of touch while placing himself squarely in the middle as the man who'll save it all. But once again, he spends entirely too much time making women both fall in love with him and into evil caricatures that you begin to wonder what point he's actually trying to make. For his own part, Doleac's Rhodes goes through no change, learns nothing, comes to no understanding. There's no difference between the man we meet in the beginning and the man that close on. Well, one thing's different. He has a woman on his arm and a smile on his face and if that doesn't just sum it all up.

-Brandon Streussnig

(For the first time ever, I won't be assigning a grade. I generally try to be fair in my criticism but this film broke me.)