The Kindergarten Teacher

(Colangelo, 2018)

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The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, a 40-year-old kindergarten teacher who finds promise in her student Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a 5-year-old with the poetic prowess of William Carlos Williams. However, Lisa’s nurturing turns to fixation as she takes his poems to her poetry class and claims them as her own. Quietly, the discomfort of Lisa’s acts become more and more prevalent throughout the film. Lisa becomes more and more intensely drawn to Jimmy and continues to behave erratically. Some of the surrounding characters realize that something is off, but the audience is still pulled into Lisa’s world of obsession, as she attempts to justify that what she is doing is ok; after all, it is in the name of art and intellectualism.

Gyllenhaal captures the feeling mania with such finesse and subtly, and it is so clear why she has the reputation she does. She turns this seemingly irredeemable woman into a richly complex character. Simply put, she is phenomenal. But apart from Gyllenhaal’s performance, The Kindergarten Teacher falls short. There is nothing outstanding or inventive about the supporting characters, despite the film being riddled with them. Lisa’s family, the other teachers and students, and even Jimmy’s dad do little to stand out alongside Gyllenhaal. The only actor who truly thrives next to Gyllenhaal is Parker Sevak. Though quiet and cute, Jimmy’s vault-like reservation acts as a perfect foil for Lisa’s prying intrigue. Though mostly silent, Sevak’s portrayal of the reticent savant is believable. But despite great lead performances, The Kindergarten Teacher veers towards the unrealistic when it comes to its story. In this day and age, it wouldn’t take long for people to notice the amount of attention Lisa puts on Jimmy. Though she is not perverse with him, her actions are enough to make the audience question why the other characters didn’t step in to stop her. This could have been intentional, painting Lisa as an unreliable narrator, trapped in her literary fantasies. However, after watching the film, it becomes clear that this is not that kind of film.  

The Kindergarten Teacher is like a bright spotlight: It shines on Maggie Gyllenhaal while enveloping the story and the rest of the cast in damp shadows. The muted nature of the film allows the audience to get drawn into Lisa’s fixation with Jimmy’s poetry like a slow burn, without ever truly feeling like they are on the edge of their seat. Director Sara Colangelo’s sophomore effort, which won her the U.S. Dramatic: Directing at Sundance this year, has a lot of potential. But its natural focus on Gyllenhaal’s performance weakens the film as a whole, even though it makes for a great acting showcase for its star. ★★★½

Fran Battiato