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Review: Maggie Gyllenhaal brings a fierce, layered intensity to 'The Kindergarten Teacher'

Director Sara Colangelo and actress/producer Maggie Gyllenhaal talk about how they brought a female perspective to “The Kindergarten Teacher.” FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2018 »

“Anna is beautiful / beautiful enough for me.” So begins the lovely and, yes, beautiful first poem we hear composed by Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), who, at first, resembles an ordinary 5-year-old but might in fact be a pint-sized literary prodigy. The only person who notices is his kindergarten teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who immediately takes him under her wing, eager to shield his talent from the indifference and banality of a world with no use for poetry.

This is the story told in Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a deft and intelligent minor-key variation on a superb 2014 Israeli film of the same title. That earlier picture, written and directed by Nadav Lapid (“Policeman”), was a slow-to-boil psychological drama that built to a scalding indictment of the mindlessness and materialism that increasingly hold sway over contemporary life. Lapid’s social critique carried a particularly potent sting when directed at Israel, but it has been transplanted, seamlessly and with little dilution of impact, to the Staten Island neighborhood Lisa calls home.

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She lives there with a dependable husband (Michael Chernus) and two teenagers (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules), who do things a lot of teenagers do — eat pizza, throw pool parties, stare at their phones — and who are sullen and non-communicative in ways that parents and children will instinctively recognize. But there is nothing reassuring about that recognition, and the movie regards these moments of estrangement and apathy less as normal phases of young adulthood than as troubling symptoms of a culture in decline.

You can take or leave that thesis, but “The Kindergarten Teacher” moves too swiftly and absorbingly to brook much argument in the meantime. Lisa responds to her domestic discontentment by throwing herself into her teaching, determined to at least mold the more impressionable minds in her midst. After school, she seeks to ward off her own intellectual decay, and perhaps unlock talents that she’s never had a chance to explore, by attending a poetry-writing class. (At the risk of telegraphing a later plot twist a bit too blatantly, her teacher is played by Gael García Bernal.)

The moment when Jimmy first recites his poem, pacing back and forth in the classroom as though lost in a fugue state, brings Lisa’s artistic aspirations and pedagogical instincts together. Lisa is struck by the poem’s elegant structure and subtle depth of feeling and also floored by the possibility that its young author — in all other respects a rowdy, adorable and utterly normal kid — might have an exceedingly rare gift.

What gives 'The Kindergarten Teacher' its peculiar force is how quickly it acknowledges the darker side of Lisa’s nurturing impulse.


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Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in a scene from "The Kindergarten Teacher."
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in a scene from "The Kindergarten Teacher." (Netflix)

In cultivating that gift, Lisa initially seems to be doing an educator’s due diligence, as when she presses his somewhat flighty nanny, Becca (Rosa Salazar), to pay attention and write down any poems she hears him recite. She reaches out to Jimmy’s similarly neglectful dad (Ajay Naidu), who spends most of his time running a Manhattan bar, and also Jimmy’s uncle (Samrat Chakrabarti), a wordsmith who seems to have instilled a love of poetry in his nephew to begin with.

What gives “The Kindergarten Teacher” its peculiar force is how quickly it acknowledges the darker side of Lisa’s nurturing impulse — and how successfully it ushers us into a strange complicity with her all the same. Colangelo, who made her feature debut with the 2014 drama “Little Accidents,” balances the story’s myriad conflicting tensions with admirable lucidity. That’s another way of saying that she keeps the camera steadily trained on Gyllenhaal, whose brilliantly discomfiting performance anchors every scene.

Lisa is hardly the first schoolteacher to employ a measure of manipulation as an educational tactic. But there is something particularly ruthless about the way she wraps a steely disposition in a warm, cajoling smile, her eyes twinkling with affection even as they penetrate your every defense. For all the attention Lisa showers on Jimmy — waking him during naptime for private lessons, having him accompany her to a Manhattan poetry reading — she refuses to infantilize him or treat him as anything but the genius she believes him to be. She demands a level of commitment commensurate with her own.

And Jimmy, played with remarkable self-possession by Sevak, responds to Lisa’s orders with a mix of obedience and confusion that feels like an implicit rebuke. On the surface, her increasingly desperate actions might seem reckless and deluded to the point of stupidity, but her motivations to the end remain irreducibly, gratifyingly complex. It’s hard not to suspect that Lisa might be driven in part by jealousy, rooted in a deep awareness of her own failures. It’s also hard not to discern an element of seduction, more psychological than sexual, in the way she tries to coax Jimmy’s talent into the light.

But it may be hardest of all to completely dismiss Lisa’s convictions, or the sense that her behavior, extreme though it may be, is rooted in a completely accurate assessment of a morally and intellectually bankrupt society. “The Kindergarten Teacher” may offer a less audacious, more stylistically muted version of its predecessor, but by the time its quietly perfect final shot arrives, the movie has reached the same provocative conclusion. It’s not poetry, exactly, but it’s pretty shattering prose.

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‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

Rating: R, for some language and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Landmark Regent Theater, West Los Angeles, and streaming on Netflix

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