It’s always nice to see teachers encouraging and motivating their students, but in Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, this is taken to a terrifying new level. Based on an Israeli film of the same name, it explores the line between encouragement and obsession. What happens when a bored kindergarten teacher meets a child prodigy? That’s what this film attempts to answer.
When teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) meets pre-schooler Jimmy (Parker Sevak), her life is flipped upside down. Lisa attends poetry night classes, but her work is frequently criticised by teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal). Her family life is unsatisfactory, with her two children underachieving in her eyes. Because of her dissatisfaction with her life, she finds herself latching onto Jimmy and attempting to live vicariously through him. The film takes the two of them on a journey, where Lisa does everything she can to nurture Jimmy’s talent.
The pair’s first encounter happens when Jimmy reads out a poem, which Lisa believes to be way beyond his age group. Throughout the film, she encourages him to write more and more, and the scenes where Jimmy reads his work aloud are captivating. This is Parker Sevak’s acting debut, and he is a seriously impressive child actor. Because the level of poetry in the film is so advanced, he speaks incredibly clearly which stuns both Lisa and the audience. He was the stand-out performance for me, and at the age of 5, manages to steal the show. I am keen to see more films starring him in the future.
That doesn’t mean Gyllenhaal’s performance was bad. In fact, this is probably my favourite of hers in such a long time. Her tenacity and passion are admirable at first and then turns into obsession very quickly. The dark turn her character takes genuinely shocked me, even though it’s inevitable she’s going to do whatever it takes to get her own way. Despite this, I felt sorry for her throughout, which is a testament to the strength of Gyllenhaal’s acting. Lisa does questionable things, she lashes out, yet I was still hoping for a better outcome. I was hoping she’d see sense one way or another. She’s a problematic character for sure, but she doesn’t have to be this way. I felt like she had the power to stop what she was doing.
The film’s pacing worked very well for me, slowly building until the final act. I loved the way it ended, as it left me with a sinking feeling. The last line by Jimmy broke my heart, and if you’ve seen it for yourself, I’m sure you’ll understand why. The screenplay is brilliantly written and tells an incredibly controversial story of what is essentially child exploitation. Jimmy’s young and impressionable mind is taken advantage of based on his talents, resulting in a series of increasingly concerning events. Just when you think Lisa can’t cross any more lines, she does, and it’s enough to shock anyone.
I was completely glued to the screen for the entire third act. If you’re looking for a fresh, thought-provoking drama then I would certainly recommend this. Maggie Gyllenhaal is at the top of her game in The Kindergarten Teacher, delivering a performance that leaves audiences feeling conflicted. This is certainly a heavy film, but I’d also consider it a must-watch and a cautionary tale for the modern age.
Director: Sara Colangelo
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gael García Bernal, Ato Blankson-Wood