When kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli realizes that one of her students is a poetry prodigy, she develops an obsession with him.
The Kindergarten Teacher, written and directed by Sara Colangelo, is based upon an Israeli film of the same name, written and directed by Nadav Lapid (this makes me wonder how many writer-directors adapt another writer-director’s film?). It’s one of the stranger experiences I’ve had watching a film, somewhat similar in many ways to Eighth Grade, because of my own life experiences–I’m a teacher. As such, I identify in so many ways with Miss Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her plight. On another hand, I’m horrified by where she eventually goes, all in the name of encouraging the artistic talents of one of her students.
From the get-go I’m with Lisa. Her morning routine, needing the centre yourself before moving in for the day. It’s tough, sometimes, to be a teacher. You have to endlessly give of yourself, emotionally, for your students. You’ve got to be parent, mentor, cheerleader, therapist, educator, and about a million other things on a minute-by-minute basis. One minute you’re consoling and wiping tears while in another minute you’re inspired by the brilliance of the young minds blossoming before you. In Lisa’s case, her kindergartener Jimmy (Parker Sevak) suddenly begins spouting beautiful, mature poetry out of nowhere, and she’s blown away.
Lisa struggles as a creative writer, not getting great feedback in her adult learning night class. She begins bringing Jimmy’s poems to class, garnering high praise from everyone–she plagiarizes a five-year-old. Then, she believes she’s discovered the next Mozart and begins to take an interest in him, seeking to nurture him, hoping to foster his creativity and artistic talent. It’s at times unclear where she’s headed with her choices, but she both oversteps and acts boldly in the name of growing art. There’s something profoundly unsettling, almost Salieri-esque about her fixation on him as the impending Mozart, intensely mistaken in her pursuit of his talent, and she utterly crosses her boundaries, going beyond art and moving into the deeply problematic. It’s unnerving.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is always so earnest and real. She takes her time with movement and her words, seemingly looking into the souls of her fellow characters and the audience. There’s a simple, passing sadness in her basic movements. Something here, though, is really true about her. She could easily be dismissive of the kids she’s working with, but she’s so present with them. Even when it’s weird that she begins lifting the poems from her student, you never feel that it’s creepy. You see that she’s really invested. Not trite. Her abilities are used against us because as she begins to spiral into some unthinkable territories, we don’t want to believe she’s going tragically nuts. She smoothly, lovingly transitions from cultivating a rare, beautiful gift into living vicariously through him and becoming dangerously fixated upon him.
I’m impressed with Colangelo’s bravery to tackle classrooms of kids, but it feels effortless. Jimmy feels totally real as the awkward kid spouting poetry but not knowing why it engrosses his teacher–it’s just something he does. And he has such an unexpectedly brilliant, inspiring moment toward the end of the film, making just about everything right.
All in all, I’m left unnerved and unsettled and in possession of a deep sympathy for Lisa. The Kindergarten Teacher is a beautiful, sad, tragic, poetic film that both parents and teachers alike should watch.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.