I should be giving this movie 5 stars. Of the 94 minute run time, The Kindergarten Teacher had me hook line and sinker probably for the first 80 minutes. I haven’t had an experience like that at the cinema in a long time; it was so beautifully done and Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an unbelievably vulnerable and captivating performance. And then the final act comes in. The final 15 minutes are such a jarring and unwelcome divergence from the rest of the film that it soured the whole experience for me. Looking back on it now, I can still appreciate that for the most part, this movie was powerful and provocative and Gyllenhaal is incredible, but that’s what makes the ending such a disappointment.
Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” tells the story of Lisa Spenelli (Gyllenhaal), a teacher with a nice husband, good kids and comfortable house but who yearns to be something more, something beyond the ordinary. She’s recently started an adult education poetry class, where she is told that her poetry is derivative and uninspired. Back in her kindergarten, she notices a little boy Jimmy (an adorable Parker Sevak), pacing and seemingly speaking to himself. Except he’s not speaking to himself, he’s reciting poetry far beyond his years. Lisa recognises how advanced his poems are, and begins to recite them in her weekly poetry class as her own. Instantly she is recognised by her teacher and the other students as a real talent, and she laps it up. Lisa develops an interest in Jimmy and his talent, writing down his poems whenever she can, mentoring him and taking him to poetry slams without his parents’ permission. Although Lisa tries to convince herself that she is acting in Jimmy’s best interest, Gyllenhaal’s portrayal flirts between kindheartedness and self fuelled obsession.
Gyllenhaal somehow portrays Lisa so that her interest in Jimmy is not really about Jimmy at all, it comes from Lisa’s desire to be close to something genuinely talented and extraordinary. She yearns to be unique herself and is terrified that she will never be able to reach anything beyond the ugliness of mediocrity. But she is ordinary, she’s not remotely talented, and despite her best efforts to convince herself otherwise, she knows it. There are moments when she hugs Jimmy, and there’s nothing sexual or even typically perverted about it, she is just enthralled and thankful to be a part of something that is bigger and better than the regular humdrum beats of the world.
This story is fairly simplistic, and in the hands of a lesser actress, I think would have gone by largely unnoticed. Gyllenhaal in this role is so damn good. For me, she is so strikingly beautiful that perhaps it could be unreasonable to think of her as a school teacher, but the expression behind those eyes is so exhausted and defeated that it somehow works. Lisa is inherently flawed and falls victim to her own arrogance and selfishness, she doesn’t truly care for Jimmy at all, even if she has managed to delude herself to the contrary.
Where this film falls flat is in the bizarre decision of the filmmakers to suddenly throw all subtlety and nuance through the window and turn Lisa into a one dimensional psychopath. It was frustrating and almost baffling to watch, it felt like a separate short film that had been thatched onto the end. More than anything else it felt lazy, literally as if the screenwriter couldn’t think of how to finish the film and decided to throw in a cheap thriller element to it instead. It’s based off the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, so perhaps it’s a problem with the source material more than anything, I’m not sure. But for me, there was nothing organic or even necessary about it, the script abandoned everything that made the film appealing and I left genuinely annoyed.
There is a beautiful moment at the very end where Jimmy says “I have a poem”, like Lisa had taught him to, but nobody listens to him. Had the film finished fifteen minutes earlier, with the little boy’s confused face saying that exact thing, I think this would have been one of the strongest films of the year. As it is now, the film is still impressive, but, perhaps like Lisa herself, falls short of being extraordinary.
By Jock Lehman