Movie Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

The less-famous older sister of actor Jake Gyllenhaal hasn’t been in as many “prestige” films as her brother but Maggie Gyllenhaal is no acting slouch. She has something that Jake doesn’t have — a Golden Globe, which she won in 2014 for her role in the British TV miniseries, THE HONOURABLE WOMAN. With her latest film, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, which she co-produced, Maggie proves that she deserves as much attention as her brother.

Directed by Sarah Colangelo (LITTLE ACCIDENTS), who also wrote the screenplay based on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name (HAGANENET) by Nadav Lapid, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER tells the story of Lisa Spinelli (played by Gyllenhaal), a kindergarten teacher in New York who becomes obsessed with one of her young students when she believes that the boy is a child prodigy. Lisa lives a rather empty existence, going to work Monday to Friday at her underfunded school on Staten Island. She’s safe in her marriage to Grant (Michael Chernus), but if there ever were any sparks in their relationship, they went out years ago. Her two teenage kids give her equal dissatisfaction as they are more interested in being online than being present at the dinner table. Once a week she attends a poetry writing class at a local college and that gives her some pleasure, but her writing is dismissed by her fellow classmates who are very competitive. Everything changes when she notices 5-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) rattle off a poem that’s far deeper and far more original than anything she ever came up with. She quickly jots down the poem and presents it in her class as her own work. Everyone in the class is impressed that Lisa has finally found her voice but none more so than her hunky teacher, Simon (Gael García Bernal, NERUDA; COCO), who now sees her in a new light. With that, Lisa encourages Jimmy to create more poems. But for the little boy, poetry isn’t something that he even thinks about. The words just come when they come. Afraid that Jimmy’s talent will go to waste, Lisa reaches out to the boy’s father but the man only wants his son to have a normal life. Lisa, however, feels Jimmy is destined for more and she decides to take matters into her own hands, blurring the line between what’s good for the boy and what’s good for her.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER is a slow burning film that has the potential to be a psychological thriller but never quite gets there, and rightly so. Lisa is a flawed character – a sad case who is never mean and never dangerous. She represents so many women her age and older who may have had dreams of something more but then life got in the way. It’s easy to feel sorry for her because her emotional gas tank is running on fumes and she sees Jimmy as the fuel she needs to find that connection that has been missing in her life. Her own kids certainly aren’t going to do that for her and she knows it. But each step she takes on this journey pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not until she clearly crosses that line that you’re not supposed to cross. Lisa’s behaviour is reminiscent of that of Joyce Mitchell’s, the prison worker who helped two men break out of a correctional facility in upstate New York a few years ago.

Here, Gyllenhaal is fabulous in her portrayal of Lisa. Through her, we see that Lisa is a good person and a good teacher, and that’s what makes Lisa’s initial choices later on understandable. She’s not crazy but life’s circumstances lead her behaviour to spin out of control. Gyllenhaal captures to perfection all these shades of Lisa’s character and it wouldn’t surprise me if she gets an Oscar nomination for her performance.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER premiered at Sundance back in January where it nabbed the award for Best Directing: U.S. Dramatic. It’s finally opening in Hong Kong this week though it’s been available on Netflix for a few months now. It’s well worth watching!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Thursday, December 13th at 8:30 am HK time!

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