Directed by: Sara Colangelo
Premise: A remake of the 2014 Israeli film. A kindergarten teacher and aspiring poet (Maggie Gyllenhaal) discovers that one of her students is a literary savant. But the boy has no one to encourage his gifts and her obsession with his talent leads the teacher to cross ethical lines.
What Works: The Kindergarten Teacher is the story of a woman who wants more out of life. Domestic dissatisfaction is nothing new but The Kindergarten Teacher depicts the frustration of an unfulfilled artist in a visceral way. The titular character The Kindergarten Teacher is Lisa, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. This is the kind of role that Gyllenhaal does well. On the surface, Lisa seems to have it all—a rewarding career, a stable home life, and successful children. But Lisa is bored of her quiet suburban life and she yearns for the stimulation of the metropolitan art scene. But Lisa is just an average writer and her poems are uninspired and halfhearted. She wants to be exceptional but cannot escape her own ordinariness. This is a common experience among creative people but it’s rarely been shown this well in a film. Lisa’s craving for something she cannot have is evident throughout Gyllenhaal’s performance. She discovers that Jimmy, a kindergarten student played by Parker Sevak, is a gifted poet who is able to craft poems on the fly. Lisa identifies Jimmy’s talent and tries to nurture it. At first the relationship seems like something healthy and beneficial to the child but Lisa becomes obsessed with positioning herself as the mentor to this young talent, leading her to make unethical choices. It becomes clear that Lisa’s charity is really about associating herself with someone extraordinary to make up for own unexceptionalism. The Kindergarten Teacher is especially good at setting up audience expectations and then sending the story in different directions. The filmmakers nod to familiar plots such as the teacher-as-savior scenario of films like Dangerous Minds or the fraudulent writer of stories like Shattered Glass. But just when we think we have this story figured out the filmmakers throw a narrative twist that foils our expectations and complicates the story.
What Doesn’t: Several supporting characters are underutilized. Lisa has a complicated relationship with her creative writing instructor (Gael García Bernal) and with her husband (Michael Chernus) but their stories aren’t followed to a meaningful conclusion. Lisa’s classroom assistant (Anna Baryshnikov) also plays an important role but she is minimized. Jimmy remains at a distance throughout the movie. The focus is on Lisa and her growing obsession with the boy but Jimmy isn’t given a complicated or nuanced portrayal. That may be part of the movie’s point—that Jimmy is indeed a kid—but the filmmakers skip an opportunity to show us the world as he sees it. The Kindergarten Teacher also suffers from a few unlikely story developments. These aren’t plot holes but there are a few moments in which the story stretches its credibility.
DVD extras: Available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Kindergarten Teacher is a generally smart story with a terrific performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film’s portrait of frustrated creativity dramatizes a potent experience common to many would-be artists.
Episode: #729 (December 16, 2018)