Joyce Glasser reviews The Kindergarten Teacher (March 8, 2019), Cert. 12A, 97 min.
In The Kindergarten Teacher the line between mentoring and molestation is blurred when a dedicated teacher feels compelled to nurture a pupil who just might be the Mozart of poetry.
Written and directed by Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents), the film won the Best Directing prize at last year’s Sundance festival, but credit must also go to Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film on which it is based, and to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unnerving, Oscar-worthy performance. This is the kind of slow-burn, character-based thriller with substance that is so hard to get right, but so rewarding for the audience when it is.
From the way in which Lisa (Gyllenhaal) goes about her classroom routine before the children arrive we know that she has been doing this for a long time. Though the routine and 20 years of teaching may have lowered her expectations, they have not dimmed her caring, enthusiasm or hope. She waters the class plants with tender loving care, nurturing them so that they will grow. And the programme for the five and six year old pupils is fresh, spontaneous and fun, yet always instructive. Everyone says it, and the audience thinks it: Lisa is a fabulous teacher.
Yet despite her supportive, easy going husband Grant (Michael Chernus) and two healthy, normal teenage children, we get the sense that something is missing in Lisa’s life that is leaving her unfulfilled and frustrated. Her son wants to go into the army rather than to university and her daughter is more interested in hanging out with her boyfriend than in engaging in cultural pursuits although she gets high marks at school. When her husband confronts her, Lisa won’t admit to being disappointed.
If she cannot live vicariously through her children, Lisa can explore her own talents, and has enrolled in an evening, adult poetry class. While she would like to impress the charismatic teacher (Gael García Bernal, excellent in some creative casting) her talent is mediocre and she struggles to find her voice.
Then one day, a diminutive five-year-old in her class named Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) starts pacing the room as though possessed by a spirit, while mumbling lines of what appears to be poetry. As Lisa jots down his words, ‘The Sun hits the yellow house like a sign from God,’ she marvels at how someone so young could write about God.
Lisa tells Jimmy’s babysitter Becca (Rosa Salazar) that they must collaborate to write down Jimmy’s poetry before his creativity is expunged by the process of growing up in modern society. When Becca reports that his bursts of inspiration occur randomly, Lisa panics, afraid to lose these precious poems for not being around. The thought of letting this uninhibited natural genius go unrecorded haunts Lisa, who, mindful of how Mozart’s gift might have been lost, takes on the role of mentor, agent, and even parent, when, in Lisa’s view, Becca and Jimmy’s single father fall short of the task.
In her evening poetry class Lisa tries out Jimmy’s poems, including The Bull, the result of Lisa encouraging him to explore different points of view. Simon’s praise prompts complaints from some members of the class that Lisa ignored the rules of the assignment. Her poem was written from her point of view. Simon, astonished at the backlash from jealous, less talented students, looks at Lisa in a different way. He invites her to his office where he congratulates her on her progress, admitting that at the beginning, her work was ‘rather typical.’ It was her poem ‘Anna’ – written by Jimmy – that convinced him, ‘here is a poet’. Lisa is taken aback when Simon asks her if she ‘likes women’, but she does not react and responds enigmatically.
When he discovers that Lisa is a kindergarten teacher Simon is impressed. ‘Wow, that’s such a delicate thing; you give something to the kids and they have it forever,’ he exclaims. Overwhelmed by their shared values, Simon invites Lisa to a poetry reading at the Bowery and then they make love on the office floor.
Contrary to our expectations, Lisa is not interested in purloining Jimmy’s poetry, but rather, in making Jimmy known and, with his consent, they begin rehearsing for his stage debut. Although Lisa has always been a tactile teacher, when she starts waking Jimmy up from his nap and taking him into the bathroom for practice, the teaching assistant becomes concerned; and when Lisa puts her number on Jimmy’s mobile to call her day or night when he ‘has a poem’, we share that concern.
Parker Sevak is well cast with his dead-pan face and a mix of vulnerability with sophisticated indifference. There are clues that while he is sincere when he says he has missed Lisa, he senses something is not right about her obsessive interest. Gyllenhaal navigates the downward trajectory of her character’s obsession with so much nuance, intelligence and sang froid that nothing appears predictable.
While Colangelo’s film is an English language remake of Lapid’s 2014 film of the same title, it is to Colangelo’s credit that it never feels like one. The adaptation is seamless and well-judged and Colangelo sustains a growing tension by as Lisa crosses line after line. And just when you are persuaded that Colangelo has tipped the balance, and the moral argument is lost, we get the haunting last shot that is like a jolt of lightning.
You can watch the film trailer here: