IN THE Kindergarten Teacher’s first scene, protagonist Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is opening the classroom blinds at the start of the school day. It’s the first of a few smart symbols in Sara Colangelo’s assured second feature film. Letting in the light is probably how Lisa would describe her life’s mission – and how she would probably justify her actions over the coming weeks, even as they veer from misguided to downright immoral.
Lisa is very much in her middle age, still physically desired yet old enough to feel her sense of the possible diminished. Her noble yet simplistic worldview elevates intellectual curiosity and creative expression above all else, and she can’t help feeling disappointed that her teenage children would rather gossip on social media than make art.
Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher
At her weekly poetry classes, Lisa’s uninspired lines about crocuses growing through concrete fail to impress her charismatic teacher Simon (a pitch-perfect Gael García Bernal). But she knows real talent when she sees it, and is astonished to find that her five-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) can produce small, perfectly formed poems seemingly out of thin air. Soon she is passing off Jimmy’s work as her own, and Simon is delighted to find that her clichés have been replaced by images of striking originality, from a bull ‘breathing to stay alive’ to the sun hitting a yellow house ‘almost like a sign from God’.
Colangelo’s script, adapted from the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, has the tautness of a thriller. Even before Lisa and Jimmy’s relationship starts to cross obvious ethical lines, there’s something deeply unsettling about Lisa’s infatuation with her precocious student. Is that flirtatious whisper really the voice she uses with all the children? Is it normal for a kindergarten teacher to be quite so tactile? Colangelo plays with such taboos to create an atmosphere of permanent unease which makes for compelling viewing.
A complex, multi-layered anti-heroine, Lisa is the sort of psychologically hefty role actresses wait a lifetime for. The genius of Gyllenhaal’s performance is that she initially comes across as enchanting — beautiful, appreciative of beauty and, as Jimmy’s vacant childminder puts it, ‘attentive’. It takes us a bit of time to realise that nearly every other character has more sense than her. Jimmy’s father, for example, a philistine businessman, is unmoved by Lisa’s comparisons of his son to the young Mozart. Creativity is alright, he argues, but what really matters is being practical, making money and leading a normal life. As unlikeable as the messenger is, he has a point. Why be a genius when you can be happy? For Lisa, blinded by her higher calling, this scepticism amounts to vandalism.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in The Kindergarten Teacher
Later, at a Manhattan poetry reading, a baffled punter asks Lisa whether she is using Jimmy “as a sort of artistic medium” to deliver her own work. The literal answer is no: the poems are Jimmy’s. But Lisa is using Jimmy as a medium, one through which she can vicariously live her unfulfilled dreams of artistic achievement. She’s stumbled upon a highly niche form of child exploitation, and ultimately it’s just as selfish as any other kind.
As Lisa’s obsession begins to contaminate her previously happy-enough family life, the suspense ticks upwards, building to a dramatic conclusion and a memorable final image that neatly captures the film’s preoccupations. The audience is left with plenty to ponder. What is talent? What makes someone a true artist, not a mere dilettante? There are no definitive answers to these questions. But at least we have films like The Kindergarten Teacher to shed a little light on them.
by Jackson Caines