Director: Sara Colangelo. Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gael García Bernal, Rosa Salazar, Michael Chernus. Cert: 12A, 97 mins
Talent is one of the most fragile qualities that can exist inside a person. A little neglect or discouragement can crush it almost entirely. Sara Colangelo’s new film, The Kindergarten Teacher, asks us how far we’d go to protect its sanctity. Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island, witnesses five-year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) in a moment of ritualistic performance.
Pacing back and forth, he utters lines of a poem that seem far beyond his years. At first, she presents his work as her own in the poetry class she attends, in order to see how her teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) reacts, but soon becomes convinced she’s stumbled across a prodigy equal to Mozart himself.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a remake of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name. Although it remains largely faithful to the original, there’s a fresh source of vitality to be found in Gyllenhaal’s presence. She’s present in almost every shot of the film, yet the camera often keeps its distance. It feels hesitant of her, unsure as to whether she’s the hero or the villain of her own story.
We may be calmed by Gyllenhaal’s placid smile and twinkling eyes, but there’s a coldness to her manner that hints at manipulation. We’re never quite sure of her true intentions. To capture such ambiguity is, undoubtedly, a hard task for any actor, but Gyllenhaal knows that a little reservation in her performance can go a long way. A few moments of vulnerability aside, it can feel like Lisa’s always got her poker face on.
That’s true even in the privacy of her own home, where she lives with her husband (Michael Chernus) and her two teenage children (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules). There’s a dissatisfaction that lingers in the air. With an underlying passive aggressiveness, she encourages her daughter to pursue photography – specifically, the type you develop in a darkroom, instead of the kind you post on Instagram. It’s clear Lisa views materialism as a destructive force that’s eroding modern culture. Whether we’re meant to agree with her assertion that today’s kids have all but abandoned intellectualism is left unclear.
In an effort to battle her despair, Lisa’s attentions turn to Jimmy; her sense of responsibility for the boy’s creative nurturing shifts into obsessive control. She deems the boy’s actual caretakers – his father Nikhil (Ajay Naidu) and his babysitter Becca (Rosa Salazar) – unsuitable protectors of his genius. As her behaviour grows increasingly frenzied we’re unsure of how to react.
What she does is absurd and, at times, seems almost laughable, but we’re frightened by it too, as it slips past what any person would deem appropriate. The film’s narrative appears to hurtle towards a conclusion that feels both inevitable and oddly elusive, largely because Lisa’s actions offer no easy interpretation. What could possibly drive her to such a state of delusion?
Colangelo, perhaps, wants to hint at an almost unspeakable question: what happens if we’re disappointed in how our children turned out? Does it rob us of the fulfilment of parenthood, if we’ve not passed on our wisdom and modelled our progeny into glorious images of ourselves? The director lets the question briefly hang in the air, but never lets it settle. The Kindergarten Teacher is a film filled with fleeting, conflicted thoughts. We see them all pass behind Gyllenhaal’s icy blue eyes.
The Kindergarten Teacher is released in UK cinemas on 8 March
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