The pursuit of artistic desire goes too far in writer/director Sara Colangelo’s slow burning drama The Kindergarten Teacher based on the 2014 Israeli film and showcasing a tremendous performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Poetic Obsessionby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindly kindergarten teacher but is unfulfilled by her lack of natural talent for poetry, she fails to shine in a weekly poetry evening class, and is disappointed by the absence of creative curiosity and flair in in her own teenage children.
The children in Lisa’s class are given their own close-up introductions and with these innocent and happy smiles Colangelo creates expectations of a gentle drama centred around the classroom before it turns into something darker and highly compelling.
As one school day ends, Lisa is stunned to see five-year-old Jimmy pacing back and forth in the classroom reciting his own beautiful and profound poem. She hurriedly writes it down and later reads it at her poetry class to great acclaim.
Invigorated, Lisa’s behaviour very gradually starts to spiral out of control as she loses sight of appropriate behaviour in her quest to protect and harness Jimmy’s ‘gift’.
Lisa becomes both a caring, concerned presence for Jimmy but also a potential threat. Early on repeated shots of affectionate back rubs in the classroom raise just a hint of suspicion in her level of familiarity with the children.
At times Lisa makes for an unsympathetic protagonist but watching her every move, and increasingly questionable decision making, is riveting. One scene where she seeks critique from Jimmy illustrates the depth of her desperation to receive artistic acceptance.
Parker Sevak gives a wonderful performance as Jimmy, the poetic prodigy, and there is solid support from Gael Garcia Bernal as Lisa’s poetry teacher and Michael Chernus as her schlubby husband but this is Gyllenhaal’s show and she dazzles.
Too rarely seen in lead roles, the actress creates a truly three-dimensional, flawed and human character in Lisa. Gyllenhaal is so warm and natural with the child actors and tells so much of the story through her eyes displaying a whole spectrum of emotions as Lisa’s journey with Jimmy’s poetry escalates.
As well as a gripping character study Colangelo’s film acts as an interesting commentary on how juvenile talent and potential must be nurtured but how those providing this support often desire to experience the ability vicariously through them.
The Kindergarten Teacher premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 8 March 2019 in the UK.