Writer/director Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher is a beguiling film. The remake of Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film of the same name starts as a fairly benign drama about a teacher living a frustrated life and gives way to a potent tale of obsession and the cost of greatness. Colangelo’s storytelling is deft enough that I didn’t realize I was being lured in until it was too late.
The Kindergarten Teacher follows Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a public school teacher who seems to love her job, takes a continuing education course on poetry, and goes home to a loving husband and two teenagers. It’s the kind of life that seems practical only in the movies. But there are cracks in the façade, visible right off the bat: Lisa’s poetry is mediocre at best, she’s bored by the tedium of the school routine, and at home she is s**ually and intellectually frustrated.
Then, she finds a spark in one of her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a quiet boy with a penchant for random bursts of poetry. Lisa presents some of Jimmy’s work in her class, and everyone is bowled over. Jimmy is smart, but he doesn’t have the support system to nurture his prodigious poetry gift. Lisa sees this as an opening and inserts herself into his life. Piece by piece, this desperate woman puts all of her eggs in Jimmy’s basket until she cracks.
The perennially underrated Gyllenhaal walks a tightrope with Lisa, who must be caring and nurturing while slowly revealing the character’s underlying pain. Lisa’s biggest problem is that no one cares about the things she does. She loves the arts, but her family can’t be bothered to read a book. She’s the only person who sees Jimmy’s potential, which everyone else dismisses as a fun quirk. As Lisa’s desperation mounts, Gyllenhaal’s performance grows stronger.
Meanwhile, Sevak plays Jimmy with just the right amount of precociousness without overdoing it. I know people are sensitive to kid performances, and “precocious” is a trigger word for many. But Colangelo never puts too much on his plate, and the kid (character and actor) has a knack for reciting poems.
The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy recalls Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, albeit far less intense (and profane). Both films question the idea of nature vs. nurture as it pertains to talent. The way Lisa spots Jimmy’s gifts and latches her hopes and dreams to his wagon recalls Fletcher, the villainous jazz instructor played by J.K. Simmons. Yet in The Kindergarten Teacher, Lisa’s biggest foe isn’t her student, but rather the world’s apathy toward Jimmy. She takes drastic actions to protect his talents.
Consider this a spoiler warning because I have to mention the ending of the film before concluding this review. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, skip to the last paragraph.
Colangelo’s script and direction make for a devastating final scene. Lisa kidnaps Jimmy and takes him to a cabin in order to ensure no one messes with his talent. When Lisa goes to shower, Jimmy locks her in the bathroom and calls the police. Lisa hears the phone call, and instead of panicking, she helps Jimmy. She guides him through the call with the police like it’s one of their handwriting exercises from school. Lisa isn’t delusional; she knows she’s wrong. But she’s even more upset that no one will encourage Jimmy if she isn’t around. She asks Jimmy to open the door so she can get dressed before the police arrive. Then, in their last moment together, they hold hands. The confluence of emotions in this scene did a number on me.
Some people will find The Kindergarten Teacher off-putting. Some may even find the drama to be a tad laughable. But viewers willing to just hit play and go on the ride will find something to make it worth their while. Colangelo’s writing and direction are economical, and she knows how to manipulate viewers, in a good way. The Kindergarten Teacher is a movie destined for a small audience. You should be a part of it.