The Kindergarten Teacher

Maggie Gyllenhaal mesmerises in this subtle and moving portrait of a schoolteacher spiralling out of control.

Based on an Israeli film of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher explores the relationship between a schoolteacher (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a child from her class who she believes is a literary prodigy. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, her remake sticks closely to Navid Lipid’s original film and the result is a beautifully complicated film which cements Maggie Gyllenhaal as one of the greatest actors of the moment.

Gyllenhaal’s Lisa Spinelli is a kindergarten (that’s primary school for us UK folks) teacher, attending an evening class in poetry whilst trying to maintain a relationship with her husband and teenage children. Her middle class suburban life, full of home-cooked dinner and white picket fences, is interrupted when she overhears one of her young children (Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak)  reciting a poem after class. The poem is complicated, sensitive and is absurdly complex for a child of five years old and Lisa’s curiosity is instantly sparked. What begins as support and encouragement turns into obsession, and Lisa quickly to begins to spiral out of control – particularly after discovering that Jimmy’s father seems to be uninterested in nurturing his young son’s talent.

The Kindergarten Teacher is first and foremost a character study. Lisa’s actions and behaviours are not those of someone in their right mind, but director Colangelo ensures that even when Lisa does the unthinkable the audience still understand her motivations. This dichotomy (understanding Lisa but being shocked by her actions) is what makes the film such an interesting puzzle to unravel. It’s unclear exactly where the line is, and exactly when Gyllenhaal’s Lisa crosses it – rather a sense of unease follows Lisa throughout the film, growing and changing in shape.

Her intentions come from a place of genuinity, but Lisa’s own feelings of creative inadequacy and fraught connections within her own family lead her down a very dark road. Jimmy’s talent gives Lisa something to focus on, something that makes her feel more than the housewife, mother and schoolteacher that her life’s road has led her to.

Colangelo directs the narrative with deft touches – her ability to bring such complex layers to incredibly intimate moments is quite astounding. Every movement, each breath is accounted for and further immerses us not only into Lisa and Jimmy’s world, but into Lisa’s psyche. Each time Lisa takes Jimmy out of naptime, Jimmy’s confusion and reluctance is palpable. Every time Lisa is praised for reading Jimmy’s poetry to evening class teacher Simon, her sense of self-fulfillment can be felt through the screen. Not a moment of the film’s runtime is wasted – every interaction (even the slightest ones) are meaningful and bring deeper understanding to the complicated woman leading the story.

Complicated women are becoming more and more prevalent on our screens and Lisa is a perfect example of a character who has gone so far off the deep end, that it’s a true pleasure to interrogate. Breaking down and investigating Lisa’s motivations, her desires and her sense of failure is a journey in itself – characters like Lisa are the most interesting to watch and identify with. Colangelo also wrote the adapted screenplay of The Kindergarten Teacher (based on Lipid’s original film) so the cohesion between Colangelo’s writing of Lisa and the direction in which the character is taken is utterly seamless. Of course, Gyllenhaal is the main event here – she wholly encompasses the role of Lisa in what seems like an effortless undertaking. Gyllenhaal has always been a fantastic actor, of course, but it is here that she seems to take flight.

Only her second feature film, The Kindergarten Teacher has shown the breadth of Sara Colangelo’s talent. Subtle and fascinating in equal amounts (and made on a minimal budget) Colangelo has shown that she is one to watch.


Updated: Mar 06, 2019

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