It’s tough to pin down what the Israeli import “The Kindergarten Teacher” is aiming for as it spins its disquieting tale of a 40-ish teacher obsessed with her 5-year-old student, a poetry prodigy.
Writer-director Nadav Lapid, following his acclaimed 2014 hostage drama “Policeman,” clearly has a lot on his mind here. But he tells his overlong story in such a diffuse, at times elliptical way that his reach exceeds its grasp.
Nira (Sarit Larry) is an introspective, sad-eyed Tel Aviv kindergarten teacher and aspiring poet. There’s something achingly absent in her soul that neither her devoted engineer husband (Lior Raz), her grown children nor her job seemingly can fill. Even the poetry workshop she attends feels too hollow to be satisfying.
When Nira witnesses her sweet-faced student Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) composing a darkly romantic poem off the top of his little head, she becomes fascinated with the unaffected boy and oddly proprietary about his eerily mature talent. It sends her down a strange road in which nurturing and protecting Yoav — against his flippant nanny (Ester Rada), his forceful father (Yehezkel Lazarov), the world at large — turns into a spooky, intrusive fixation. But to what end?
Does Nira really want to bottle Yoav’s gift and help to send him on a fruitful life path? Or is she simply living out her creative frustrations through the budding artist? Answers here are few, compounded by a desperate third-act turn that deprives viewers of hope, catharsis or closure.
Still, Lapid confidently peppers the film with enough provocative beats, unsettling behaviors and bold camera moves to keep us intrigued — if not necessarily invested.
“The Kindergarten Teacher”
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2 hours. In Hebrew with subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino.