The Kindergarten Teacher review - brilliantly observed ethical pretzel about a poetically gifted kid
A precociously five-year-old is discovered by pre-school teacher Maggie Gyllenhaal in a wonderfully sensitive American remake of an Israeli original
Wonderfully observed ... The Kindergarten Teacher. Photograph: PR
Nadiv Lapid’s Hebrew-language The Kindergarten Teacher was one of the more unshakable films of 2015, with its wonderfully inscrutable nature,. One of the most important things that writer-director Sara Colangelo has done in her American remake is keep the central mystery intact. There is a list of small changes, some tweaks to the characters, a few added jokes, but this is very much the same movie told a second time. Is that necessary? Sure, why the hell not, especially when either version is so great. Moreover, it’s a chance to see Maggie Gyllenhaal give one of the best performances of her career.
When we first meet Lisa Spinelli she’s a caring, patient kindergarten teacher in Staten Island who takes a weekly poetry class in Manhattan. (If you are fuzzy on your geography, this means crossing the mighty New York harbor in a huge and highly photogenic orange ferry.) By the end she’s a, well … I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just call her a social vigilante. One of her young students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak) behaves like a regular five year-old most of the time, but now and again he goes into something of a trance-like state and starts reciting poetry. His syntax and vocabulary are clearly coming from “somewhere else,” and while a lesser film would go down some sort of supernatural possession route, what drives Lisa more than anything else is her desire to archive his work.
The problem is that no one else seems that interested. His mother is out of the picture, his father is a successful owner of a sleazy nightclub and the would-be actress nanny (a former coatcheck girl at the aforementioned nightclub) is happy to tuck the kid in at night, but that’s about it. Lisa knows that little Jimmy is the next Mozart, but with no one to nurture him he’ll have the talent beaten out of him by a society obsessed with cell phone apps and video games. She takes it upon herself to bring him to museums. She takes it upon herself to present his work at a poetry reading. She takes it … way too far.
Even outside of the magical realism of Jimmy’s gift, The Kindergarten Teacher is a wonderfully observed story of a woman approaching middle age tussling with her vanquished dreams. Her home life is terrible. Her marriage is sexless. Her son plans to join the military against her wishes. Her daughter seems to have abandoned all ambition to social media. (“Why don’t you pick up Dad’s camera and lenses again?” Lisa encourages her eye-rolling teen. “I post cool stuff on Instagram all the time,” comes the painful response.) Time and again we see her eating bland-looking vegetables. With Jimmy in the picture, she has purpose.
There’s a bit of comedy when she starts passing Jimmy’s work at her poetry class (to the point that she ignites the romantic interest of her teacher, played by Gael Garcia Bernal) but this is more quality assurance testing than stolen glory. Lisa’s behavior is nothing if not pure, which is why the third act becomes such an ethical pretzel. Lisa sees herself as the hero, but I think the movie does, too. That’s a level of daring we don’t often see, particularly in a film about children. The Kindergarten Teacher is probably the only movie about poetry with an ending as tense as any thriller.