At one point in the beguiling remake of the 2014 Israeli of the same name, a character in The Kindergarten Teacher evokes the name of Mozart as being a prime example of a child prodigy who was nurtured and otherwise taken care of by those who appreciated his unprecedented talent to the point where the young composer only had to focus on creating. When teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who appears in every frame of this film) discovers a possible poetry genius in her class of five year olds, she dares to consider what life would be like for young Jimmy Roy (newcomer Parker Sevak) if all he had to concern himself with was being creative.
For what seems like a fairly simple story, writer/director Sara Colangelo (following up her 2014 debut Little Accidents, which also debuted at Sundance) packs in a great deal for us to consider about Lisa’s mundane Staten Island existence as a 40-year-old wife and mother. She’s also a frustrated artist, taking a continuing-education course in poetry led by a charming but brutally critical teacher (Gael García Bernal), who makes it clear that Lisa functions best as an appreciator of art rather than a maker of it. Home life isn’t much better, as she’s surrounded by a family who she no longer feels connected to, including her husband (Michael Chernus), a son (Sam Jules) eager to join the military (she considers this a squandering of his talent and education), and a daughter (Daisy Tahan) who won’t remove her face from her phone.
Then one day after class, Lisa spots young Jimmy pacing around her otherwise empty classroom reciting a short poem he seems to have made up on the spot. It’s simple beauty and bold construction shock her, and almost on a whim, she presents the poem as her own to her class, the members of which are stunning by the maturity of the work. Lisa gently pushes the quiet, almost uncommunicative Jimmy, trying to tap into his inspiration and trigger new works. She enlists the boy’s nanny (Rosa Salazar) to document any new poems he comes up with at home. And little by little, we begin to see the seeds of obsession planted in Lisa’s head as she makes it her mission to nurture and encourage Jimmy’s gifts.
If The Kindergarten Teacher was nothing more than a tale of a teacher devoting herself to a single student’s success, it still might have been a solid work. But as Lisa begins to cross lines—little by little at first, and then more dramatically—the true nature of this story takes shape, and by the time we understand what is really happening, the movie is neck deep in its startling premise.
To watch Gyllenhaal transform several time during the course of the movie is a genuinely treat. When Lisa is passing off Jimmy’s poems as her own, she becomes a free-spirited artist, flirting with her teacher and even volunteering to read “her work” at a poetry club. But as her relationship with Jimmy evolves to the point where she takes over in the nanny job after school just to spend more time with him, she assumes the role of mentor and even protector—neither of which feels entirely appropriate in the moment. We also get to see Lisa just being a teacher to all of her young students, and Colangelo with cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino capture what are clearly spontaneous moments between actor and young non-actors that sell Lisa’s gifts at getting this easily distracted kids to focus on her lessons. Later in the film, when she’s focusing most of her attention on Jimmy, we see these same skills (fine tuned over 20 years on the job) used to draw out thoughts and work from the boy. The elegant camera work, combined with Asher Goldschmidt’s pensive score, provide the perfect framework for this psychologically fragile piece.
The Kindergarten Teacher never explicitly asks the question, Would our reaction to what Lisa ultimately does in the film’s climax to ensure Jimmy get the attention she thinks he needs be different if it were a male teacher doing it? But it’s almost impossible not to contemplate the scenario were the genders reversed.
The film builds an exacting, creeping tension that lasts almost the duration of the running time. As a character, Lisa is inherently fascinating because it’s so easy to empathize with her plight of feeling trapped and frustrated in a life she likely never saw for herself. The only times in the movie where we see her light up are when poetry is involved, even when it’s not her own work. Perhaps unfairly so, she see Jimmy as the child she never had, one who actually followed her artistic lead and wanting desperately to please her. There’s a very good chance that certain audience members will leave the theater never liking Lisa because of some of the decisions she makes, but it seems clear that Colangelo finds it more importantly for us to understand Lisa than want to pal around with her.
While Gyllenhaal can be one of our most expressive actors, in some of her more recent work (including he astonishing take on sex workers in HBO’s “The Deuce”), she gets the most power by being a little more difficult to read. She seamlessly moves from aggressively manipulative to nurturing caregiver, often within the same scene And it’s that unpredictability that gives this movie its strength and grace, not to mention its most unnerving moments. Like the poems at its core, The Kindergarten Teacher has an almost undetectable depth that makes it its own special child.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10