Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher

Maggie Gyllenhaal is brilliant in The Kindergarten Teacher. She’s been teaching for 20 years when this messy-haired, quiet kid named Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) enters her class. He turns her whole life upside down.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays teacher Lisa Spinelli. She and her aid Meghan (Anna Baryshnikov) are cleaning up at the end of the day. Jimmy is still there, waiting for his always-late nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to arrive. Jimmy begins pacing the floor and talking. What he says is a perfectly formed poem. The poem is so mature, so sophisticated, so brilliant, that Lisa writes it down.

As soon as Jimmy is finished pacing and announcing the poem, he sits down and turns back into a normal 5 year old boy. Lisa, however, is electrified and amazed.

When Lisa gets home to her husband (Michael Chernus) and teenage kids (Sam Jules and Daisy Tahan), we learn that she is currently enrolled in a poetry class. She writes her own rather ordinary poems while heading home on the ferry.

Lisa takes Jimmy’s poem to her poetry class and reads it as if it were her own. Her teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal) loves it, as does everyone in the class. The next week she reads another one with the same reaction.

The two teachers, Lisa and Simon, do approximately the same thing. They grab on to their gifted student with both hands and want to be the one who develops their budding genius before the world. It’s fascinating to see the same teacher and student dynamic in parallel stories, but in one case both parties are adults. And one of the adults is lying. The intensity from the teacher has different results between adults.

Later, when Simon realizes the truth, he kicks Lisa out of class.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in The Kindergarten Teacher
Tell me when you get a poem so I can write it down

Lisa burns to nurture Jimmy. She watches for him to begin the pacing that means a poem is coming. She takes him to museums. She trains him to recite his poems before an audience. She gives him her phone number so whenever he “has a poem” he can call her to write it down. She wants to publish a book of his poems.

Jimmy is mostly compliant, but he doesn’t understand what Lisa wants from him. He doesn’t know why she pulls him away from all the normal 5 year old things going on in his life and brings him too close.

Lisa is convinced that Jimmy’s nanny is a ditz who will destroy him. His father wants him to play baseball. Her solution is to take him to her house, overnight, without the father’s permission. When the father moves him to a different school, Lisa kidnaps Jimmy and heads for Canada.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in The Kindergarten Teacher
You’re my Mozart, Jimmy.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a wonder in this, so sure of what she’s doing. It’s a brilliant performance. The intensity and intimacy Lisa pours into Jimmy is very uncomfortable to watch. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa as soft and gentle, empathetic, but so intense. Ultimately, she’s undone by her desire to contain and develop the genius student who has crossed her classroom door. Her emotional investment in him overturns her life with her husband and family, her job, everything.

Lisa’s obsession destroys her life. But what of Jimmy’s genius? Will normal life smother his talent? The very last line we hear in the film is Jimmy’s small voice from inside an empty police car saying, “I have a poem.” No one is there to write it down.

I recommend the film. It’s a woman’s story – a messy, flawed, ordinary human woman. She comes to a crossroads and takes a wrong turn. I want to see more films like this one.

The Kindergarten Teacher was written and directed by Sara Colangelo, based on the screenplay by Nadav Lapid of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name.

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