Despite premiering at Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher only made its Australian theatre debut in April this year. The film is an English-language remake based on Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli drama of the same name and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, the story’s troubling, complex protagonist. Lisa is a kindergarten teacher harbouring inner aspirations for artistic greatness, yet her life unfolds in a perfunctory blur of dissatisfaction. She remains in a secure yet dispassionate relationship with her husband (Sam Jules), makes repeated, ultimately futile attempts to engage with her distant teenage children, and is seemingly unable to fulfil her creative ambitions due to her own lack of talent.
But the protagonist’s listless existence is wholly shattered during one ostensibly ordinary afternoon. While Lisa waits for one her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevac), to be picked up by his babysitter, she witnesses him reciting one of his own poems. She is overwhelmed by Jimmy’s prodigious capabilities and immediately insists on developing and spreading his talent. From here on, the rules of appropriate conduct become incredibly blurry as the film spirals into an uncomfortable play of murky twists and turns.
Even before Jimmy’s introduction within the story, there is a sense of a perpetual longing lurking within Lisa. Her attempts to write poetry appear thwarted by inability – her poetry teacher dismisses her work as ‘derivative’, and she herself appears uninspired and demoralised by her lack of progress. These punctured aspirations of artistic greatness are further conveyed through Lisa’s (unsuccessful) attempts to foster ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’ within her household. Essentially shouting to deaf ears, she perceives her world as being twisted by capitalist values, with those around her wholly devoid of the desire to create.
It’s no wonder that at the first sight of Jimmy’s talent, Lisa jumps at the chance to nurture his poetic gift. She perceives his skill as a divine talent. Indeed, during a scene where Jimmy recites another of his poems, Lisa watches on in the background, totally awestruck. We see her crouching on her knees with a look of complete and utter wonder in her eyes, wholly captivated by this child. Yet there’s a creeping sense that perhaps what Lisa perceives is not the actuality of the situation. As she rushes to write down every word of Jimmy’s work, the other kindergarten teacher in the room remains unaware that Jimmy is mouthing anything beyond mere mumbles. When Lisa frantically asks whether the teacher caught the last word, the other woman seems confused as to why she would even bother writing down what Jimmy was saying in the first place. The viewer is left questioning whether Jimmy’s gift is indeed genuine, or if perhaps Lisa’s own disappointments have led her to delude herself about the boy’s supposed prowess.
As the film progresses, Lisa’s actions intensify to frightening proportions. From speaking to Jimmy’s babysitter about the importance of nurturing his talent, to giving Jimmy her personal phone number, taking him to evening poetry readings, and eventually straight-out stalking him after his parents transfer him to a different school, Lisa’s actions become steadily more uncomfortable. An increasing sense of tension pervades the story.
Yet, as disturbing as Lisa’s actions are, they are made even more troubling because the motives underpinning her behaviour are so unclear. At several moments, it seems as if Lisa is entirely separated from reality, so absorbed in her own fantasies of greatness that Jimmy is merely a vehicle through which she lives her dreams vicariously. It appears that Jimmy is the only thing that sparks any sense of enthusiasm, enjoyment or purpose in her own dismal life; she lives only for and through the promotion of his otherworldly talent.
Moreover, for a kindergarten teacher, Lisa appears entirely unconcerned with allowing Jimmy to be exactly what he is: a child. She continuously makes dismissive remarks about the other adults who reprimand her for her actions, for the way they can’t see what she sees, simply because they refuse to look at him beyond the parameters of a ‘stupid kid’. Her desperation continues to escalate, and, ironically, Lisa often appears the greatest threat to Jimmy’s own talent. Her single-minded crusade to foster the ‘poet’s’ talent threatens to swamp his childhood, his creativity, his passion and at some points, even his innocence. From the outset, it seems Jimmy’s saviour is perhaps the most dangerous force in his life.
Interestingly, Colangelo’s film does not resolve in a warning about the dangers of an obsessively nurturing, helicopter-style parenting. Rather, she delicately suggests that Lisa isn’t entirely wrong here, that there’s potentially some justification to her panicked, deranged mission to protect Jimmy’s gift. Indeed, when Lisa initially pretends that Jimmy’s poems are her own during her weekly class readings, the work is exceptionally well-received. Furthermore, when Lisa forces Jimmy to attend a public performance, the other poets in the audience appear similarly awestruck by his art. And from the way Jimmy’s own absent, workaholic father dismisses Jimmy’s artistic ability, there’s a sense that Lisa is not entirely off about the world being tainted by capitalist values that deem anything unprofitable as useless. Most heartbreakingly, though, the film concludes with a feeling that Jimmy does in fact want to pursue his passion, and that without Lisa’s protection, the world will merely ignore him and pummel his talent into oblivion.
The Kindergarten Teacher treads a tightrope of tension throughout its entirety and its lead performances are nothing short of outstanding. Gyllenhaal’s performance is hypnotic, delivering her complicated protagonist with moments of both detached, forlorn grace and bursts of single-minded passion. Sevac’s portrayal of Jimmy carries a subtle eerie quality, his performance conveying the wisdom beyond his years which serves to only intensify the film’s discomforting aura. Colangelo’s drama is essentially a psychological thriller set within the confines of a classroom. It’s difficult to classify it as an enjoyable watch, but it is, a compelling example of a thoughtful work of cinema.
Beth Seychell is currently studying for her undergraduate degree, majoring in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. In her spare time, she loves watching films and working on her book blog, @bethsbibliotheque. A few of her favourite things include peacocks, laksa and anything floral-printed.