The Kindergarten Teacher, 2018.
Directed by Sara Colangelo.
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Michael Chernus and Gael García Bernal.
A kindergarten teacher in New York becomes obsessed with one of her students whom she believes is a child prodigy.
A rare Hollywood remake of an acclaimed, award-winning foreign film which arguably improves upon its inspiration, The Kindergarten Teacher matches a never-better Maggie Gyllenhaal with a subtle yet incisive script in the sophomore feature from writer-director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents).
Titular kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) is living out a relatively mediocre, humdrum existence in New York City, taking night-time poetry classes in an attempt to reignite her joie de vivre. Her life is turned upside down, however, when she witnesses one of her young students, five-year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), conjure up a beautiful poem on the spot, seemingly all by himself. Her protective desire to nurture his creative spirit and ensure it’s not stamped out by the big, wide world, however, quickly turns unhealthy.
If you’re prepared to accept a slightly contrived set-up – it’s pretty convenient that one of Lisa’s students would have a preternatural ability to create wonderful poetry just as she herself is taking poetry classes – this is a wonderfully off-kilter gem of a suspense-drama. It wastes little time at all building an unsettling air, as you start to wonder just how far Colangelo and Gyllenhaal are really going to take the obsessive behaviour.
What follows is a studious exercise in second-hand embarrassment as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly, ambiguously scatter-brained, to ends both comedic and legitimately uncomfortable. As such, it just may leave you watching the movie mostly through splayed fingers.
Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast here as the kindly teacher with a genuine desire to shape young lives, but also as a more intensely sad woman whose desperation to get more out of her life is only scarcely-veiled.
True to the meticulous script, Gyllenhaal plays the part with an intriguing spareness, obstinately refusing to push Lisa into caricature or cartoonishness as a lesser actress certainly could have. Though most audiences will appreciate that Lisa’s actions are eventually misguided, that the character is still relatively sympathetic throughout is a testament to Gyllenhaal’s deeply compassionate, humanistic work.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s joined by a splendid supporting cast, of course. Young Parker Sevak, making his screen debut as Jimmy, is wonderfully believable as the child prodigy blissfully unaware of quite how intently his kindergarten teacher is observing him, while Michael Chernus is perfectly cast as Lisa’s schlubby husband, Gael García Bernal is effortlessly charming as Lisa’s poetry teacher, and Rosa Salazar has an intriguing – if small – role as Jimmy’s babysitter Becca.
Though the film certainly could’ve gotten away with utterly flat, workmanlike visuals, Pepe Avila del Pino’s cinematography is both gorgeous and intimate; several shots of Lisa’s sunglasses reflecting the scenic surroundings are especially memorable, and could probably be hung on a wall as they are.
Del Pino and Colangelo also smartly commit to a multitude of locked-off camera shots which linger long on the actors with agreeably minimal fuss. Asher Goldshmidt’s musical score, however, proves occasionally overbearing as it tramples over a few nicely subdued moments, but for the most part it’s employed decently enough.
From its instantly-engrossing opening all the way through to its brilliant ending, The Kindergarten Teacher is a water-tight character study that never overplays its hand nor trades overtly in riddles, while trusting its tenacious lead actress enough to fill in the middle-ground. A delicious exercise in weaponised cinematic cringe, fronted by a career-best performance from the ever under-appreciated Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.