Philip Fillmore (Eric Brown), or Philly to his friends, is a fifteen year old rich kid who is at that certain age where he's gotten obsessed with girls, but he's solely interested in those older than he is. Tonight he is spying on a birthday party for the seniors at his school with his best friend Sherman (Patrick Piccininni), and is delighted to see one girl fall into the swimming pool with her boyfriend which turns her blouse see-through. Further to that, they follow her to watch her get changed through a window, but are discovered by their teacher, Miss Phipps (Meredith Baer), who tells them to concentrate on girls their own age...
If only Philly had taken that advice then this would have been a very different movie, but in this form it became one of the most successful independent films at the box office to that date, mostly because of the prurient factor of watching a teenager seduced by an older woman. The woman in question was Emmanuelle herself, Sylvia Kristel, here getting her biggest hit since that seventies benchmark of smut, though if anything Private Lessons was far more distasteful. She played Miss Nicole Mallow, who is the Fillmores' housekeeper, and seems to be taking an interest in the boy, or at least not dissuading him from taking an interest in her, which led to some non-explicit but still dubious sequences (a body double was used).
The excuse here apparently being Nicole was a foreigner to American shores, so would not have any hangups about going to bed with a fifteen-year-old, but you just have to think of what kind of film it would be if the genders were reversed and Philly was a girl being seduced by the chauffeur Lester (Howard Hesseman) to see where this was on very shaky ground. Oddly, not many people - well, males - watching this back in the eighties had much of a problem with this premise when they were watching it on home video or more likely on late night television, this apparently being ideal sexual fantasy material for those who didn't stop to think about what they were indulging. If they had, they might see how downright weird this was.
Of course, there is an ulterior motive for Nicole's seduction, and that's where what has previously been a not very funny comedy turns into a not very thrilling thriller, as if director Alan Myerson, whose previous film had been counterculture favourite Steelyard Blues almost ten years before, wanted to prove himself in Hitchcockian terms (to be fair this was recut against his wishes). What is going on is a blackmail plot, so while Philly's father (Ron Foster) is away on business (though when we see him on the phone he's with a naked woman), the scheming Lester puts his plan into action by forcing Nicole to draw Philly into their web. While you may have thought less of her for this behaviour, we're actually supposed to perceive that she's a nice lady really, mainly because she's willing to fulfil the kid's dreams.
Needless to say, if you're at all squeamish about the plot, and nobody could blame you for that, then you're not going to get along with what as the years pass looks like a dinosaur in terms of its sexual politics, but there are other aspects which while not in as terrible taste, make Private Lessons hard to take. Take the soundtrack made up of AOR which appears to have been chosen for its lyrical suitability, so in the early stages you get Earth Wind and Fire crooning Fantasy as Philly, er, fantasises about Nicole, then later on after he's taken her out to a restaurant we get Rod Stewart rasping Tonight's the Night, as if what's being lined up wasn't horrible enough. There's a lot of Rod on the soundtrack for some reason. Anyway, what has most stuck in the minds of those who saw this would be those sex scenes, which are all very obliquely filmed, but don't dispel the pressing question of what the hell were they thinking when they made this, not something that might go through the minds of boys the same age as the hero, but it sure does now. Also: worst ending ever? Music by Willie Nile.