The Kindergarten Teacher
When does a teacher’s desire to support her five-year-old pupil’s poetic talent turn into a creepy obsession? Probably when she starts kidnapping him. The Kindergarten Teacher is a dreamy, surreal tale of suburban boredom and lofty aspirations gone wrong.
Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a middle-aged kindergarten teacher who, despite her best efforts, can only write cliched, “derivative” poetry for her adult evening class. She dreams of a more cultural, less Instagram-obsessed world where people still develop photographs in dark rooms and feels out of kilter with her distant children and loving but exceptionally ordinary husband.
When Lisa notices five-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) from her class reciting a poem he wrote, which shows a talent far beyond his years, she tries to convince his workaholic father that the child is a prodigy. Unable to persuade anyone that Jimmy is exceptionally gifted, Lisa becomes obsessed with trying to encourage the young boy’s talent.
The Kindergarten Teacher features an ominous, slightly choppy and unstable classical music score, which, combined with dreamy camera sequences and contrasting facial close-ups, brings the audience into an off-balance, un-hinged world where nothing seems quite real.
The ferry that the protagonist frequently takes between Manhattan and Long Island signifies the divide between the world she wants to live in and where she ended up. Lisa clearly fancies herself an intellectual who likes art, poetry and all things cultural, yet in her middle age the only person she feels she can share that with is someone else’s child. Her character is snobby, but also makes us question the difference in how talent should be encouraged and how much we really value it in the modern world.
Lisa’s actions often don’t make sense: she does things without any thought to the consequences and doesn’t seem to consider or care what is going to happen to her, but Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance and manages to balance her character’s callousness with little moments that show us how sad and lonely this woman is. She puts everything on the line for this child because she doesn’t feel like she has anything else worth caring about. In the end, we can’t help feeling sorry for Lisa and find ourselves wondering if, despite everything, she was partially right.
In his first film, Parker Sevak gives an impressive performance, which highlights how young his character is as he also makes himself appear older than his handful of years. This is a mostly serious, dramatic movie, but some of Jimmy’s lines will make the audience burst out laughing.
Stories about a teacher becoming obsessed with a student, particularly when the pupil is this young, could be taken in a very disturbing direction. Thankfully, director Sara Colangelo does not go down that route. There is an uncomfortable amount of platonic physical contact between Gyllenhaal and the kindergarteners, which is more uneasy because of the connotations rather than the physical affection itself, but Lisa’s obsession is more of a stage mother wanting “her child” to have the life she wants for herself rather than anything nefarious.
The Kindergarten Teacher is released in select cinemas on 8th March 2019.
Watch the trailer for The Kindergarten Teacher here: