The Kindergarten Teacher is an enigmatic film. A remake of Navid Lapid’s Haganenet, this is a quietly unnerving, genre-defying drama, with a devastatingly understated performance at its heart.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher longing for a more culturally enriching life. She loves art and poetry, but feels trapped by the mundanity of her suburban existence. There’s nothing wrong, exactly: she’s good at her job; she has a supportive husband; her teenage kids are decent, and doing okay. But there’s a spark missing. Her children seem happy to just pootle along, and she can’t hide her disappointment that they don’t aspire to anything great. “I noticed you’re good at photography,” she tells her daughter, Lainie (Daisy Tahan), “Why don’t you take dad’s old camera and set up the dark room?” But Lainie is dismissive: “I post lots of cool stuff on Instagram,” and Lisa is adrift, with only her weekly poetry class to fulfil her need for erudition. But she’s all drive and no substance: her poems are, it seems, derivative, clichéd. Her heart aches for creativity, but it’s out of reach.
So, when five-year-old Jimmy starts reciting oddly esoteric poetry, Lisa pounces on his potential. Habitually a quiet, undemanding little boy, he regularly enters a trance-like state, declaiming lines extraordinary for one so young. They seem to speak of experiences beyond his years, and Lisa gleefully transcribes them. He’s a child prodigy, she thinks, a Mozart of verse. And she’s determined to let neither the school curriculum nor his benignly neglectful family stifle the boy’s genius.
And, in order to protect it, she crosses a line.
It’s to writer/director Sara Colangelo’s credit that we never discover the root of Jimmy’s precocity: there’s a hint of the supernatural about the way the poems come to him, but it’s never really explained. This ambiguity serves the film well, complementing the moral uncertainty surrounding Lisa’s response to the gifted child; there are no easy answers here. It’s a deceptively simple piece, the very banality of Lisa’s decision-making process somehow highlighting the grotesque nature of her behaviour.
Parker Sevak’s delivery is remarkable for one so young; he shows us a Jimmy who is convincingly doubtful, yet easily manipulated. But Gyllenhaal is the beguiling core of this movie, demonstrating once again an astonishing level of complexity in her performance. There are so many layers to Lisa’s character, and we’re aware of them all: from her craven seeking of validation from hot young lecturer, Simon (Gael García Bernal) to her instinctive reluctance to allow her son to join the armed forces. We know that what she’s doing is wrong, but we can understand her, all the time.
This is a quietly powerful piece that will provoke discussion after the credits have rolled.