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Lisa Spinelli, the 40-something educator at the center of Sara Colangelo’s reflective character study “The Kindergarten Teacher,” is bored out of her mind. Not only bored, but also frustrated for having a great deal to express, yet being cursed with inadequate (or moderate-at-best) creative skills to convey her novel musings through art. She navigates her way through the kind of reality many of us are stuck in. Quietly convinced she was destined for bigger and better things, Lisa leads a mundane life in Staten Island—perhaps the most ignored and forgotten of New York City’s five boroughs—and visibly detests it. The duality of her existence shows in her underwhelmed eyes. As shrugged-off as her hometown is, Lisa impatiently tries to invent ways to keep her cracked spirit whole—an evening poetry class seems to be her only refuge and oasis of sanity. If only she wasn’t such an unoriginal poet with tired metaphors.
A faithful but culturally updated American remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film of the same name, the closely observed “The Kindergarten Teacher” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (among the most versatile and underutilized actors of her generation) in the role of the internally split Lisa. Both scrupulous and fittingly hazy, Gyllenhaal captures her character’s outsider-ly state-of-mind with astonishing depth, through the subtlest of details in the way she carries herself. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly wrong with Lisa’s routine, mind you. If anything, she enjoys a fairly stable and privileged life, however dull. Married to a decent (yet unexciting) man, mothering two teenage children with typical (but non-extreme) teenage issues, and holding a respectable teaching post at a pre-school, Lisa touches the lives of young children at an early age, when it matters the most. But she still drags her feet, finding only a slight spring in her step when she enters through the doors of her extracurricular lecture, taught by a charismatic (if not slightly self-important) poet (Gael García Bernal). Once again, Lisa herself is no poet, not really. So she silently blends in, until one day she discovers a pint-sized child genius at her kindergarten (Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak), who walks around like an old soul trapped in a kid’s body, muttering original verses of poems he has made up on the spot to himself.
Are the impossibly adorable Jimmy’s poems (like the one below) in fact any good? You be the judge of what will surely inspire some debate:
“Anna is beautiful,
Beautiful enough for me.
The sun hits her yellow house,
It’s almost like a sign from God.”
If you’re uncertain, let me assure you that what matters more here is their future potential and superiority to Lisa’s work—impressive enough to get her attention and to even awaken dark, exploitative impulses in her. So Lisa listens to the worst of her instincts, steals Jimmy’s poems one by one and becomes the toast of her evening class, finally claiming the attention she had long thought she deserved. Thanks to Gyllenhaal’s effortless dance around the obsessive corners of her character’s mind, Lisa’s unhealthy fixation assumes a borderline psychotic shape in no time. With every desperate attempt to suck more inspiration out of her little student of Indian descent, the villainous Lisa comes across like a dementor out of a “Harry Potter” novel, preparing to evaporate her underage victim into an empty, lifeless shell.
Except, she persuades herself that she only wants the best for Jimmy, who’s raised by an indifferent family and a frantic babysitter uninterested in (actually, unaware of) the prodigious kid’s unparalleled talents. Taking the matter into her own hands and smugly trusting her white privilege (whether she knows it or not), she goes off the deep end while completely underestimating young Jimmy’s beyond-his-years instincts. (Adults, your kids process more than you give them credit for.) In the film’s final act, which plays like a short thriller that can easily stand on its own, Lisa falls victim to her own arrogance. Neither the freedom-seeking homemaker of “Puzzle” nor the manipulative psychopath of “Gone Girl,” Lisa embarks on another atypical kind of female journey; one that resolves in a distressing place of indifference. In a lesser version, “The Kindergarten Teacher” would end on a comforting note in which Jimmy’s talents would be embraced by a healthy mentor. But Colangelo (and her source material) sidestep that easy exit for something haunting, uncertain, and several shades darker.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli
Parker Sevak as Jimmy Roy
Gael Garcia Bernal as Simon
London Valentine as London