“Those who can’t do, teach.”
These are cutting words for Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a bored kindergarten teacher harboring the desire to create something greater than a life spent living for others. Going through the motions at work, and at home with her loving but unobservant husband and two self-absorbed teenagers, her only creatively stimulating outlet is a nighttime poetry class. Try as she might, her attempts to convey her thoughts and feelings through prose are labeled “derivative” by the class and dismissed by her teacher (Gael García Bernal). Blaming the world for stifling her artistic sensibilities, Lisa channels her failed ambitions into nurturing the talents of her five-year-old student, Jimmy (Parker Sevak). Convinced the boy has a prodigious gift for poetry, she will stop at nothing to ensure that his work is respected and preserved.
Sara Colangelo helms this effective American remake of 2014's The Kindergarten Teacher from Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid. The centerpiece is a profound and layered performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who brings an aura of confidence to Lisa that dares anyone to question her righteous motives. Her intentions toward Jimmy are at once maternal and disconcerting, becoming increasingly inappropriate as her mission to safeguard his delicate art transforms into obsession. At one point, she literally becomes the predatory cliché, offering the child candy to lure him away from the classroom for a private conversation. Yet, Gyllenhaal so brilliantly balances the character’s projection of her own aspirations onto Jimmy with her misguided and manipulative schemes that it’s impossible not to empathize with her often desperate decisions.
The overarching message about society discouraging artistic ambitions may not seem powerful on its own, but as the motivation behind this character study of an intelligent woman suffocated by her own artistic mediocrity, it becomes a riveting narrative device. She sees no artistic value in what she does, even though she is instilling an appreciation of art and beauty in these children’s lives and providing them the skills they need to become contributing members of society. Her fear that Jimmy’s curiosity and talent will be stifled and erased without her by his side awakens an unstoppable force inside her. Colangelo and Gyllenhaal methodically escalate the tension in a way that leaves us questioning to the very end how far this woman is willing to go to protect her protégé.
The path The Kindergarten Teacher takes is surprising, and greatly enhanced by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s careful yet confident stride in the shoes of Lisa Spinelli. Even the title evokes a certain melancholy after you’ve come to know Lisa through every scene of this film. Her vocation doesn't come close to encapsulating who this woman is, but a lifetime spent nurturing young minds is a hard habit to break. The crescendo of a lifetime spent stifling her true passion is funneled into the future of this child poet, as if her proximity to his genius will somehow make her relevant. Her actions are reprehensible, but her intentions are so achingly good that it's heartbreaking to watch. Gyllenhaal embodies this woman in a way that summons our sympathy, even as she oversteps her bounds as a teacher many times over.
The Kindergarten Teacher is available now on Netflix.