Film Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

Flawed but original film centering on a kindergarten teacher and her off-the-rails relationship with a five-year-old poet-prodigy.
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Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) suffers from a kind of free-floating malaise. A Staten Island wife-mother-kindergarten teacher, she mourns the lack of beauty in her prosaic, middle-class life and has enrolled in a weekly poetry workshop. Her instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal) is not impressed with her writing, and her hard-working husband (Michael Chernus), who tries to be supportive, doesn’t really care about the arts. Likewise, her twenty-something son (Sam Jules) has his sights set on a military career and her teenage daughter (Daisy Tahan), whom she berates, has no cultural interests or curiosity. For her, social media is all and she views Mom as a throwback.

Lisa trundles to and from her job in Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry. The repetitive trip across the New York Harbor, with its wide-angle shots, evokes not expectation but expectation gone sour (compliments of cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino).

Life is dreary until she spies Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a sweet child in her class, spewing forth snippets of poetry that are not readily accessible but stunning nonetheless, deeply sad with references to God. She grows increasingly fixated on the hapless child and in short order her obsession is all-consuming: She wakes him at naptime to parse what he’s written and urges him to call her at home to recite his new work and/or share anything else that’s on his mind. Soon she’s phoning him.

Yes, the relationship is creepy, but it’s not exactly going where one might expect. Inspired by Nadav Lapid’s Israeli-based 2015 film, writer-director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents) and, most especially, Gyllenhaal have created an off-the-beaten-path character who defies easy classification or interpretation. Consider this: She pretends Jimmy’s poetry is hers and reads it aloud in her workshop to much acclaim. She has reservations about her own talents and knows she’ll gain credibility with Jimmy’s words.

The teacher sees her in a new light, leading to a sexual encounter between the two, an event devoid of any discernible meaning to Lisa. Far more important are her feelings for Jimmy, whom she likens to Mozart. Without her nurturing him—her intervention—she believes his gifts will be destroyed in a culture defined by materialism, soullessness and lack of connection.

His family’s behavior and values support her view. A child of divorce with a mother who is out of the picture altogether and a largely absent father, Nick (Ajay Naidu), Jimmy is cared for by an indifferent nanny-cum-aspiring actress, Becca (Rosa Salazar), who’s landed the job because she’s sleeping with Dad. Lisa informs Nick that Becca is worse than incompetent (overstating her failings) and asks if she can replace her in the after-school hours until Dad gets home at night. Lisa is not above flirting with him to obtain her ends, though it’s also possible flirtation is an unconscious reflex for her.

Either way, Nick dismisses his lover without a second thought—this is a compassion-free universe—and takes Lisa up on her proposition. That said, he makes it clear he is not interested in his son’s poetic talents. Indeed, he’d much prefer it if Jimmy were turned on to sports and ultimately strived for a business career. (Nick runs a sleazy nightclub.)

All hell breaks loose when Lisa oversteps her role. She takes Jimmy to a poetry reading in the Bowery, propping him up onstage to recite his work before bringing him to her own home to spend the night, all of it without Nick’s permission. Justifiably furious, Nick removes Jimmy from her care, even withdrawing him from her school, and forbids any further contact between them, at which point Lisa goes rogue. A character study morphs into a case study.

The film has been teetering on the edge, though until this moment it had not yet slipped. Still, from the outset, Lisa’s culture-vulture fetishism feels slightly off and more closely allied to a psychiatric problem than a philosophy or eccentricity. More to the point, Jimmy’s role in her life has been ambiguous, to say the least. Is he the gifted child she never had or her stand-in, representing her frustrated (or nonexistent) talent? Or does he embody something else altogether? Are identity politics on display? After all, Jimmy is half-Indian. Is Lisa his white savior?

Through a contemporary lens it is virtually impossible not to view Jimmy as her victim as we collectively wait for Lisa, the child abuser, to ultimately shape-shift into a figure out of a campy horror flick. Spoiler alert: That’s what happens, sort of. It’s so American, especially compared with Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher.

It’s a curious comparison, because the two films are almost identical in terms of storytelling, yet fundamentally different in their themes and tone. The Israeli picture, deeply rooted in culture and politics, is at once subtler and more existential. Warplanes fly overhead, survival is not guaranteed and a sense of urgency belies the teacher’s relationship to her pupil, her feelings about the military and art vs. materialism. And then there’s her sexuality that is automatic, promiscuous and joyless. How you choose to live your life in Israel is a seminal issue, a public and private crucible.

Racial and class elements are present too. The nanny, a black woman, is being screwed by the child’s white Israeli father, while she in turn is exploiting his son, copping his poetry and using it as audition material. (Both nanny and teacher plagiarize the youngster’s words in the Israeli pic). A fractured and factionalized society is further evidenced in the poetry workshop, where students are gratuitously harsh in their criticisms of one another’s work; at the poetry reading an audience of alleged poets feels free to taunt the five-year-old prodigy. But in the end he is totally alone, his future without his deranged teacher uncertain at best.

The Israeli film is organic (forgive the hateful word) in ways that Colango’s is not. Still, she was approached by the Israeli producers who wanted their story told in an American setting from a female perspective, and on many fronts she has scored. There is suspense, momentum, and some nice comic observations—e.g., the wretched poetry the would-be poets pompously read to each other in class. Throughout, an intriguing weirdness prevails.

Performances are well limned all the way around. In the smaller roles: Garcia Bernal as the charismatic, relentlessly self-satisfied poetry teacher; Naidu, the sly Yahoo; and Chernus, an inarticulate, well-meaning lump. The leads are captivating, Sevak every bit the gentle wunderkind, strutting across the floor uttering, at moments struggling with, lyrical and elusive phrases he may or may not understand. But the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal, whose signature over her career is the contradictory, complex character (Sherrybaby, Secretary and most recently HBO’s “The Deuce”); in Teacher, she evolves from an earnest instructor with amorphous yearnings to an impassioned pioneer on a mission. Her staid clothes have become flowing and Bohemian. She seamlessly straddles the line between lover and mother, predator and mentor, sociopath and companion.

The Kindergarten Teacher is a flawed movie, but it presents an onscreen character original enough to be worth knowing.