Helen Tope reviews The Kindergarten Teacher, showing in our cinema until Thursday, including a special Reclaim the Frame screening with intro, Q&A and poetry workshop on Tuesday.
Set in a New York school, The Kindergarten Teacher takes us into a gentle world of routine. The children practise their letters, guided by their teacher Lisa Spinelli (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). The classroom is a safe space; the children’s curriculum joyfully punctured by Lisa’s enthusiasm for creative play.
One afternoon, whilst waiting to be collected from school, Lisa’s student Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) begins to recite a poem he has just composed. It is deftly worded, with a complexity far beyond what you would expect for a child of his age. Lisa attends creative writing classes during her evenings, and spots his potential. It is a rare and astonishing gift – so much so it unsettles us a little. Lisa begins to question, as we do, what she has heard. Is this something Jimmy has been taught? If not, is the poem as good as she thinks it is?
In an attempt to get unbiased feedback, Lisa takes Jimmy’s poem and reads it to her creative writing classmates, passing the work off as her own. The poem is a hit, particularly impressing Lisa’s tutor Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Lisa begins a journey to explore Jimmy’s talent, taking him out of class, coaxing him to produce more poetry – work that will match the assignments Lisa is given for her weekly class. She tries to engage Jimmy’s family – newly divorced, Jimmy’s father is busy running a nightclub; and Jimmy’s uncle – intelligent and sensitive – is barely in his nephew’s life.
Frustrated at being met with mostly indifference, Lisa steps from a murky grey morality and into a world where her behaviour becomes obsessive and disordered. We see the warning signs, the wild missteps. Lisa programmes her phone number into Jimmy’s mobile; she coaches him into producing more and more work. She has found a poetry night in Manhattan where she wants him to debut. Lisa moves forward with a blindness to the consequences of her actions; risking her career, her family, everything.
Directed by Sara Colangelo, and taking inspiration from the 2014 film by Israeli film-maker Nadav Lapid, The Kindergarten Teacher is a noir-thriller that settles under the skin. Not diverging hugely from the original, the film is impossible to firmly categorise. Not horror, supernatural, or domestic drama, but with elements borrowed from all three, The Kindergarten Teacher, like the best poetry, leaves an impression you can’t quite shake.
Told almost entirely from Spinell’s perspective, The Kindergarten Teacher shows how it is possible to create a different kind of thriller. No shots are fired, but the tension – eked out minute by minute in the final scenes – is laid down as carefully as a trap. We can see the crisis coming, but we step into it all the same.
Colangelo’s direction is cool and measured throughout. Telling the story without sensationalism, Lisa’s actions, as they begin to merge into a pattern, are slowly drawn out for us to consider. We are left to make our judgement, although Lapid’s screenplay, repurposed for this film, scatters enough red herrings to keep us guessing. Are the poems, with their references to God, the result of an ultra-religious upbringing? In his poem ‘The Bull’, is Jimmy describing a monster within his own life – is he an abused child? As Lisa’s grip on reality loosens, what are we actually seeing? Truth, or fragments from a disordered mind?
The resolution turns out to be both banal and deeply shocking, but the film makes clear that transgressive acts are not only confined to its lead character. A creative writing tutor only too eager to sleep with his student; a nanny who regularly turns up late to collect Jimmy from class. Morality may be a sliding scale, but The Kindergarten Teacher argues that there are still some absolutes; lines we do not cross.
What The Kindergarten Teacher does particularly well is the layering of psychological details. Lisa luring Jimmy away from his class; her over-eager pursuit of his family. This, coupled with her inability to read their cues of discomfort, makes us trust what we’re seeing less and less. The level of detail is astonishing – right down to the jewellery Spinelli wears throughout the film. The pieces worn by Lisa drop clues into the narrative – including a black bangle of two hands reaching across her wrist, struggling to make a connection. As Lisa, Maggie Gyllenhaal is simply magnetic. In a study of a woman tipping into chaos and unreality, Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career.
The Kindergarten Teacher places itself delicately within the moral spectrum. Lisa’s motives are broadly well-meaning; there is every chance that Jimmy’s gift will extinguish itself, if not encouraged. Rather than painting Lisa as a sleekly-emerging villain, the film suggests that her manic desire to encourage Jimmy comes from a very real concern.
The film asks what will happen to the poets and artists of a generation brought up on quick hits and sound bites. When everything online has a voracious immediacy, where is the space for contemplation? Thought, deliberation, silence – these are fundamental to the creative process. While the internet delivers exposure to ideas from across the world, the flip side is our reliance on these mediums to keep us passively entertained.
Refusing to anchor us in familiar narrative ground, The Kindergarten Teacher is a film that never quite behaves in the way you expect it to. Far from being a weakness, the film is elevated. A superbly original take on the thriller genre, The Kindergarten Teacher isn’t just defying the rules – it’s playing a different game altogether.