Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

by Andrew Parker

Writer-director Sara Colengelo’s remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli drama The Kindergarten Teacher is a delicately, but darkly crafted morality tale that’s elevated to even further greatness and nuance thanks to an exceptional leading performance from the always reliable Maggie Gyllenhaal. Colangelo, who picked up a directing prize at Sundance earlier in the year for the film, has clearly studied Lapid’s equally creepy and moving story of internalized emotional destruction well. The Kindergarten Teacher boasts material that cries out for a fine and thoughtful touch. In the hands of most, this tale of an educator who’s becoming increasingly untethered and unhappy would have come across as either offensive or unnecessarily menacing. While I disagree that it was the overall best directed film out of Sundance, there’s no denying that Colangelo is one of the few people who could have ever pulled off something this close to the original.

Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher, who’s clearly struggling to maintain her enthusiasm for life outside her classroom. The relationship she has with her husband (Michael Chernus) is comfortable, but lacking in passion. She hates that her teenage son (Sam Jules) wants to join the Marines, and that her daughter (Daisy Tahan) would rather be a chilled out stoner. She craves an expressive artistic outlet in her life, so she takes some poetry writing classes (run by Gael García Bernal), but she doesn’t have a lot of talent. One day at work, she overhears five year old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a kid who can barely write, reciting a poem that’s the work of someone vastly wise beyond their years. Immediately intrigued, she learns from the boy’s nanny (Rosa Salazar) that Jimmy’s prone to creating such prose on a regular basis. Lisa, who pawns off some of Jimmy’s work as her own to impress her poetry class, becomes obsessed with mentoring the young man, even if the boy’s single, workaholic, club owning father (Ajay Naidu) couldn’t care less what they do as long as he’s dropped off at baseball practice on time. Lisa’s obsession with Jimmy never becomes a proper mentorship, however, and things grow unhealthy for the both of them.

The Kindergarten Teacher stands as a perfect example of how to make a slow burning psychological drama without resorting to cheap theatricality or melodrama. A lot of the groundwork for Colangelo’s reimagining of the story has been done already by Lapid, but in some ways the porting of the story from Israel to America makes The Kindergarten Teacher’s subtext about doting parenting, unrealized potential, and impending empty nest syndrome a lot more potent and borderline terrifying. There are no cheap musical stings, ominous camera angles, or obviously evil dialogue to underline how unusual this teacher-student relationship is, and Colangelo is a strong enough filmmaker to realize she doesn’t need to resort to such trickery, instead revelling in small touches and details, and having full faith in her script and actors. It’s a good looking film, but this is something more deeply indebted to the writing and cast than it is the direction.

Lisa’s actions are unethical, insecure, and frequently immoral. At the same time, she always shows a dedication to fostering Jimmy’s unusual, almost preternatural talents. She’s simultaneously in awe and jealous of Jimmy. When she reads some of Jimmy’s work in her poetry group, the class responds thoughtfully and enthusiastically. When she reads her own word, it’s received with a shrug at best and scoffs at worst. She has a strong family of her own, but she’s a dilettante who craves a sort of success she doesn’t have the talent to achieve. In this case, those who can’t do truly do teach, but they also leech off the talents of the people they have deluded themselves into thinking they’re helping. Lisa is breaching the trust of her student and openly committing plagiarism, but it’s never immediately apparent if she intends to let Jimmy forge his own path with knowledge she can impart or if she’s grooming the kid so she can emotionally benefit from his talents.

There’s also something very interesting going on in terms of how Lisa responds to Jimmy’s poems, and that’s the subtle undercurrent that makes The Kindergarten Teacher’s mentor-protege relationship so fraught. While Lisa can attempt to make sense of Jimmy’s obtuse, but colourful imagery, she’s forgets the one thing teachers should be doing, but that she’s failing to see. She looks only for deeper emotional meaning and eloquent use of language. She never stops to question the true inspiration for Jimmy’s works. She sees Jimmy’s artistic abilities as existing in some sort of creative vacuum. When she finds out the meaning of one of his best poems at a rather inopportune time, Colangelo uses it as a chance for the film’s most unforseen and emotionally devastating scene. Just like she never questioned if she was helping or hurting Jimmy, she also never questions if her teachings are having any impact whatsoever.

There’s never a moment in The Kindergarten Teacher where the viewer thinks things are going to end well for all the parties involved. Colangelo prepares the audience well in advance for the dark roads ahead, but they never go so dark as to be disgusting or exploitative. A big part of why viewers will want to follow along with such an immensely flawed and often unlikable protagonist comes from Gyllenhaal’s remarkable ability to humanize Lisa.

Colangelo gives Gyllenhaal and Sevak (who’s a perfect stoic counterpart to Lisa’s overly eager and desperate character) plenty of tiny character touches to work with to showcase their talents and hypocrisies. In a memorable, but telling throwaway moment, Lisa chastises her daughter for smoking weed on the family’s patio, but then immediately rushes to find a pack of cigarettes that she stashed away so she can calm down. The best moments between Gyllenhaal and Sevak, of which there are many overall, come whenever the teacher perpetually wakes the poor tyke up during naptime so she can bring him someplace quiet to pick his brain and teach him writing tips that he might already know. Sevak gets the chance to play someone smarter than the audience suspects, while Gyllenhaal has the harder task of playing someone who thinks they’re doing something good and fulfilling while being oblivious to her own selfish desires.

If you’re worried about The Kindergarten Teacher taking “that” twist, don’t worry. There’s no need for that sort of trigger warning here. There is a twist, but it’s more in tune with the constantly downbeat and lonely nature of the protagonist. The Kindergarten Teacher doesn’t want to necessarily shock anyone, but it wants to take them by surprise. It’s not a tearjerker, but it’s also a film where it’s easy to feel sadness for the characters. It plays on anxieties and fears, but not for the sake of easily reasoned moralizing or dramatic high spots. As I said before, The Kindergarten Teacher is a delicate sort of film, and it’s one of the year’s most disarming dramatic experiences.

The Kindergarten Teacher opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, October 12, 2018.

Check out the trailer for The Kindergarten Teacher:

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