Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindergarten teacher who writes poetry that fails to impress her class and who is losing her pride in her children. She discovers that one of the students in her class, five-year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), has a gift for poetry her reaction is unconventional, extreme and potentially dangerous.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a slow-burn psychological drama in which Lisa’s mental state is gradually unpicked by her obsession and isolation. Her fear that this extraordinary talent she has observed will be crushed by the anti-intellectual, pro-apathy times she lives in is terrifying.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a very dark role. She’s very natural as the sweet-natured and softly spoken teacher, but there’s a deeply sinister duplicity to her performance. It’s a very nuanced, sinister performance. Yet Gyllenhaal and writer-director Sara Colangelo ensure that she’s never out of reach. Her actions may be uncomfortable but they’re always understandable. Lisa is a very human monster, born of frustration and fear.
The fear of mediocrity drives the action of the film. Gael García Bernal plays Simon, stealing every scene in which he appears with his energetic physicality. Simon is Lisa’s poetry teacher and represents the judgemental attitude toward those who dare to express themselves. Lisa’s frustration at her inability to please her peers is heartbreaking.
The focus of the film is very much on Lisa and her situation. The child is an ancillary force, a Mozart for her Salieri. His gift is inexplicable, like an act of nature. There’s a karmic quality to the story. It plays like a fable.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a superbly acted and profoundly upsetting story of jealousy and the fragility of beauty. Sara Colangio has with her second feature film proven herself a major cinematic talent.