In The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as a pre-school teacher who becomes obsessed with a talented five year-old student in her class.
The Kindergarten Teacher is the remake of Hagaganet, a one-of-a-kind, multi-award winning Israeli drama that made a lot of people talk upon its release in 2015. Writer-director Nadav Lapid was praised for the delicate way he approached the controversial subject of a teacher who goes too far while trying to nurture a pupil’s talent. Hagaganet is a complex, bold and well-delivered psychological thriller, but Sara Colangelo’s latest project is just as clever, thought-provoking and exquisitely unsettling as the original film.
The leading character in Colangelo’s remake is Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Staten Island kindergarten teacher who appears to have lost all her creativity and goes about her daily life by absentmindedly adhering to a routine. As a teacher, she smiles to her five-year old pupils and shows them how to write the alphabet, speaking softly to them while lost in her own thoughts. As a wife, she has brief, business-like interactions with her husband (Michael Chernus) in which they both pretend to like the clichéd, unoriginal work she comes up with for her poetry class assignments. As a poet, she reads her work aloud to her teacher Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), in front of a class in which every single student is painfully aware of her lack of talent.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s delicate portrayal of a woman who is struggling to stay afloat in a world that seems to reject her enables us to see her for what she really is, in all her nuances. Lisa is a complex, believable and relatable character, and she has our attention and sympathy from the moment she appears on the screen. We really feel for her, and nothing seems to be wrong, at first, when she notices that her five and a half years-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) has an incredible talent for composing poetry.
But it’s the little details that make our alarm bells ring. Lisa happens to hear Jimmy recite a poem and rushes to write it down, word by word. What could be interpreted as a harmless attempt to keep track of the child’s progress soon turns into something else entirely when, instead of giving the poem back to Jimmy, she holds onto it herself. By the time she asks Becca (Rosa Salazar), the nanny, to write down any poem Jimmy might say out loud in the future, we begin to uncover the real, much darker nature of Lisa’s interest in the child. “You’re such a good teacher“, Becca tells her, but we know better.
We don’t know much about Lisa Spinelli yet, but we know enough to understand that the relationship she is establishing with Jimmy is a dangerous one. We see her get upset when her husband (rightly) wonders if such a young child should already be writing about God in a way that he defines “disturbing”, and a series of questions come to our minds. What exactly happened to this kid to make him have such a “grown-up” vision of the world? And, most of all, why doesn’t Lisa seem to care or even acknowledge that?
When we finally realise that something is definitely wrong, the teacher’s behaviour has already escalated, and so have our feelings towards her. Her actions make it clear that her interest in Jimmy is purely selfish, and we dislike her for her lack of understanding of what’s ethically and morally right or wrong. She gives Jimmy detention and wakes him up during “nap time” just to get him to write more poems, andwe can’t believe her lack of boundaries and complete disrespect of the child’s needs. By the time she starts invading the boy’s private life, we begin to wonder if her unhealthy obsession with Jimmy is ever going to end.
The answer to our questions comes, and the director gives us just enough time to catch a glimpse of Lisa’s own (neglected) children before the teacher’s obsession spirals. She calls Jimmy’s family on the phone, she meets his dad and even criticises the nanny for treating the child “like a baby”. She manages to get more alone time with him after school but even that doesn’t satisfy her, so she saves her personal number in Jimmy’s phone and asks him to call her whenever he has a new poem. And if he doesn’t take the initiative, she does: she picks up the phone with a cigarette in her hand and calls him “just to say hi” before his bed time.
“You teach the kids something, and then they have it forever,” Simon’s words of admiration for Lisa’s job sink in and soon acquire a completely different meaning. We think of how much damage Lisa’s toxic personality might have already done to Jimmy, as she went from teaching him the alphabet to being the opposite of a role model: she lied, she broke rules, and she disregarded his father’s wishes. We have no sympathy for Lisa and wish someone would notice and stop her. But, after all, who wouldn’t trust a Kindergarten Teacher?
The moment we become aware that this harmless tale of a teacher’s midlife crisis is starting to look more and more like a horror story is the very same moment in which Sara Colangelo’s incredibly delicate, effective directing style gets to us, and we understand the true nature of all these characters. We see a poetry teacher (Simon/Bernal) who is just as broken and obsessed with possessing someone else’s talent as Lisa is, and we see a husband who hasn’t the slightest clue of his wife’s needs. Most of all, we see a woman who is profoundly sad, broken and insecure, and who doesn’t even know what she is looking for.
Lisa is toxic, manipulative and selfish, but it’s only because she doesn’t know how to function in any other way. She projects herself onto every single person she meets, from total strangers to little kids, in her desperate attempt “not to be a shadow”. Lisa’s need to be heard is what leads her to try to establish a connection with pretty much anyone she crosses paths with, and it’s when she fails that a worse, self-destructive version of herself takes charge. But, underneath it all, we see a woman who is painfully aware of all the damage she has done and desperately trying to be good.
“Loneliness is still time spent with the world,” Jimmy’s poem recites, and we realise that the boy’s needs are perhaps not so different to Lisa’s. As destructive and toxic as it is, the bond between the two leading characters of Colangelo’s drama is also complex and multilayered. It is also not entirely negative, as the influence they have on one another, as dangerously wrong as it is, enables them both to grow up and make important choices that will affect the rest of their lives.
And yet, as we realise that Jimmy is not only the most authentic character in this film but also, paradoxically, the only “adult”, we can’t help but wonder what he will become in twenty years’ time. The Kindergarten Teacher is an emotional, intense, definitely dark and sometimes even disturbing journey whose story still remains partly unwritten, and this is the true genius of Colangelo’s painfully accurate analysis of human behaviour.