Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher movie poster, featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak.

***½

In a world that doesn’t value art, is it a crime to nurture genius? It sure seems that way to Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the disenchanted teacher and amateur poet at the centre of Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher.

A remake of a 2014 Israeli film, The Kindergarten Teacher is a tale of disillusionment and obsession, which follows Spinelli as she resorts to more and more extreme measures to nurture the poetic talent of her five-year old student Jimmy. More than anything, the film is a character study of one woman whose deep unhappiness with her own lack of artistic talent and frustration with a world that does not value art leads her to obsessively fixate on the talents of another. Is she nurturing genius? Is she stealing Jimmy’s childhood? Is she living vicariously through someone else’s child?

These questions remain compelling throughout primarily due to a thoughtful and layered performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who shows Lisa’s genuine caring and generosity alongside her eccentricities and neuroses. The subtlety with which she portrays the teacher’s growing obsession allows us to understand why those around her don’t see the warning signs that are so clear to the audience. It is a credit to both Gyllenhaal and writer/director Colangelo that the film never tells the audience what to think about Lisa, allowing us to make our own judgements as to what extent her motives are pure and her actions forgivable.

As young Jimmy Roy, the object of Lisa’s obsession, newcomer Parker Sevak delivers a performance that is impressively natural for an actor his age, endearing the audience to the child prodigy and never letting us forget, like Lisa perhaps does, that he is still only a child, with the same childish habits and wishes as his peers. Whether or not you can believe, as Lisa suggests, that he is poetry’s answer to Mozart, or stomach the sight of adults falling over themselves to praise the ‘work’ of a kid spouting nonsense, likely depends on your personal level of tolerance for that particular artform. This reviewer couldn’t help the odd eye-roll.

It is the believability of the two leads and the intentional ambiguity around Lisa’s actions that keep this character study compelling despite its slow pace. Nonetheless, while The Kindergarten Teacher is a fantastic showcase for Gyllenhaal’s talents and at times a fascinating portrait of obsession, for all its talk about art it is not clear whether the film itself has anything greater to say.

The Kindergarten Teacher opens in UK cinemas on 8th February 2019.