Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a doting kindergarten teacher in New York. She is married with two children. Her relationships at home are entirely functional, yet devoid of passion. Sex with her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) is extremely sporadic and easily interrupted. The teenage kids Josh and Lainie are slowly drifting away, with the latter often confronting her mother and challenging both her parental and her intellectual stills.
Lisa’s main venting outlet is a poetry club led by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), but her writings are dismissed as trivial and unoriginal. Overall, Lisa lacks both inspiration and excitement in her life. Until one day she realises that one of her five-year-old pupils has a gift for poetry. She overhears Jimmy (Parker Sevak) reciting a poem that he wrote himself and becomes profoundly impressed. She takes the poem to the poetry club as reads it as if it was her own. Simon and the others too become impressed, presuming Lisa authored the writings herself.
Lisa becomes obsessed with Jimmy. She insists to his father that he allows his young boy to explore his artistic gift. He’s some some of Mozart of poetry, she argues. The father is very dismissive, as he believes that poetry isn’t a serious labour. From this point on, Lisa starts to descend into a downward spiral. She has a sexual encounter with Simon, but nothing fruitful comes out of it. Her frail relationships at home collapse. And she is willing to resort to desperate measures in order to explore the full talent of the child “genius”.
The Kindergarten Teacher, which is the remake of the eponymous 2014 Israeli film Nadav Lapid (who just won the Golden Bear for this year’s Synonyms), purports to be a study of intellectualism, but it fails enormously at doing so. The outcome is mostly pretentious and hardly plausible. Sevak isn’t particularly strong at reading poetry. His diction is not on a par with the complexity of the poems, and his delivery of the self-written literature is just bizarre. Finding good actors at such young age is of course very difficult, yet excellent results can be achieved with a good helping hand from the director and coaches. A fine example of superb child acting (even younger than Sevak’s Jimmy) is in the Spanish film Summer 1993 (Carla Simon, 2018).
Plus, there are several holes in the plot. For example, why isn’t Lisa ever able to record Jimmy’s poetry in time, as he recites it? She always try to jot it down on paper. I wonder why it never occurred to her that she could use a mobile phone in order to capture the audio. Another problem is that the characters (except for Lisa and Jimmy) are both flat and redundant. The relationships are not explored in enough detail, and it’s never very clear what their function is. The film ending is particularly awkward, and you might leave the cinema with a big “WTF!” questions hanging above your head.
Some people might choose to laugh at The Kindergarten Teacher, and interpret it as comedy. I think, however, that these people are reading against the text as this was not intended to be a comedy.
Not all is bad about The Kindergarten Teacher. On the positive side, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a delight to watch. She conveys femininity, maternity, sexuality and existential angst. It’s never entirely clear the sort of attraction that Lisa feels for little Jimmy. Is it maternal, is it romantic, is it intellectual, or a mixture of all three. Maggie Gyellenhaal manages to sustain the narrative and deserves credit for a heartfelt and credible performance, despite a clumsy script and character conception.
The Kindergarten Teacher is in cinemas on Friday, March 8th. On VoD Monday, July 8th. On Mubi in November (2020).