“The movie is at its best at playing off individual moments and assembling larger observations from there, not of the other way around.”
by Ken Bakely
For all the films that have tried to find a new angle on middle-aged, suburban complacency, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher boldly suggests that one of the most visible casualties in such a setting is a resolute lack of artistic appreciation. A remake of an Israeli drama but unquestionably planted within American culture, the film follows Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a longtime kindergarten teacher on Staten Island. She lives with her husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), and their two children, who are both older teenagers clamoring to leave the nest. Shrouded by the predictability of her days and taken for granted by her loved ones, it’s clear that she’s desperate for any break in the routine, any reminder that there’s still room for something new in the world, and innovation for her to discover.
That’s why she’s so immediately taken by Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a student who recites poems throughout the day. His creations are quite complex for a young child, and Lisa believes that if she hones his gift – a proclivity ignored by his workaholic father and indifferent babysitters – he will have a future as a great artist, and she will sport the accomplishment of having gotten him there. Early on, it’s clear that the latter is more forthright in her mind, as she passes off his works as her own in the nighttime poetry class she takes, and incessantly pushes him for any hint in how to get his elusive creativity flowing. She has him recite his poetry at a formal recital, standing hawkishly above him the entire time, as if to channel his talent and the praise he receives. Colangelo pushes further into the more disturbing implications of this relationship: Lisa has become obsessed with Jimmy, living vicariously through the mind of a five year old, hoping that any hint of meaning she can assign to his life will reflect something back to her own.
It’s all startlingly uncomfortable. Gyllenhaal’s carefully numbed performance provides distraught explanation at what drives her character to increasingly extreme ends without thought for the personal consequences. There’s never a serious concern that Lisa will inflict serious harm on Jimmy; rather, her behavior is always fixed on a possessive protection, as she sees him as the only outlet for the artistic spontaneity that she lacks. The Kindergarten Teacher culminates with a finale that plays into this dynamic at full speed and thriller-like scenarios. Colangelo handles the ratcheting up of stakes while maintaining tonal consistency, but ultimately, it’s up to Gyllenhaal’s meticulously controlled performance to bridge the gap between the stasis of early scenes and the heightened tensions of the third act.
Yet the plot’s development tends to falter in a more general sense, with each involving turn met by a far sloppier reinforcement. The continual messaging of the story’s placement as a metaphor for the endangered nature of intellectual fostering in modern mass culture becomes increasingly obvious. By the time that the film’s final shot drills it home with extra gusto, The Kindergarten Teacher has somewhat betrayed the sturdiness of its direction and the power of its lead performance with such single-minded thematic focus. It’s only part of the picture, and the strength of Gyllenhaal’s work renders the movie worthy of recommendation by itself, but there’s often a sense that the actress is left a bit adrift. She conveys Lisa’s cumbersome, cringe-invoking decisions with a firm grasp on the script’s intended subtexts. However, in practice, those subtexts are more like texts after a point, as the film’s structure leans towards using intensifying situations to deliver the same ideas again.
Instead, the movie is at its best at playing off individual moments and assembling larger observations from there, not the other way around. Each of Lisa’s rattled digressions to others about her young student’s potential, juxtaposed against Jimmy’s face-value reactions, make the dynamics of her control over him all the more visceral. Colangelo argues that perhaps she is correct in her view that the boy has extraordinary potential, but this could just as much be a coincidence. Living in a world so starved of originality, Lisa essentially disposes of rationality as a tool of a rigid cultural establishment, and she’s completely at a loss of what to do from there. Her relentless wandering has turned into a full-on sprint, but one entirely without direction. And to watch this character, spurned by the flaws of the real world to the point that she creates her own opaque fantasy alternative – as she stands, ready to throw away everything to find someone else who can justify her obsessions – is The Kindergarten Teacher’s most fascinating proposition. But it’s not from any additional propping-up of its symbolism or playing to the balconies from which it extracts that success. It’s the foundation that everything is built upon to begin with.