Inspirational teachers are everywhere in cinema, from the obviously brilliant likes of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Matilda‘s Miss Honey through to the slightly more dubious methods of Albus Dumbledore and Jack Black’s Mr S in School of Rock. Initially, it seems as if that’s the sort of tale that The Kindergarten Teacher is going to spin as well, but writer-director Sara Colangelo – adapting a 2014 Israeli film – has something altogether more twisted up her sleeve.
Things start with such simplicity. Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is intellectually unfulfilled. Her grown-up kids are more interested in smartphones than Shakespeare, while her night school poetry tutor (Gael García Bernal) dismisses her carefully crafted haikus as “derivative”. In her day job as a kindergarten teacher, though, she discovers five-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) recounting beautifully pithy metaphors while pacing back and forth. With Jimmy’s dad (Ajay Naidu) a workaholic businessman and his nanny (Rosa Salazar) too distracted to notice his genius, Lisa takes it upon herself to nurture this talent.
Initially, this is all perfectly innocent, but soon lines start to get crossed. Lisa begins babysitting Jimmy after school and hands over her personal telephone number, asking him to recite his poems to her. She also begins passing his work off as hers at night school, earning the rave reviews and creative recognition she has always desired.
The extent to which The Kindergarten Teacher works is down to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s central performance. Colangelo’s central message seems to be a rather worn-out assertion that tech-obsessed modern society has lost sight of what’s important, but Gyllenhaal’s work convinces the audience that, for Lisa at least, society is broken. There’s a clear divide between her peppy teaching persona and the chin-stroking intellectual she portrays in her poetry classes, but a question mark hangs over her home life. Which is her true self? Does she even know?
There’s a sinister feeling of obsession in the way she pursues and coddles Jimmy. The youngster treats his trance-like poetry readings with something like complete disinterest and detachment, but Lisa becomes convinced he’s a “young Mozart” and begins waking him from his daily nap time to deliver pompous pep talks about perspective and imagery. Lisa is a character who exists in a constant moral nether zone, clearly acting in a way she believes is right, but is borderline chilling to an outside observer. The Kindergarten Teacher fumbles with that ambiguity and is unable to find a compelling route through the fog.
It’s not necessarily that the movie refuses to take a side, which wouldn’t be a problem. The issue is that Colangelo doesn’t seem to even frame the terms of the debate, until some late scenes in which Asher Goldschmidt’s score thankfully understands the difficulty of what is unfolding. By allowing Lisa’s frequent screeds against tech – “I wish there was a little more curiosity, vibrancy and intellectualism in this house” – to pass without much interrogation, The Kindergarten Teacher feels like it lacks the thematic depth it is reaching towards.
By cleaving tightly to Lisa’s perspective, some of the other corners of the story are left unexplored. Sevak’s nicely portrayed Jimmy is a mere vessel for Lisa’s vicarious creative burst rather than a rounded individual, while a romantic frisson between Lisa and Bernal’s hunky professor is so under-cooked as to feel completely unnecessary and more than a little distracting. Gyllenhaal’s performance is impressive, but only her character is given the chance to step on the soapbox, despite the contentious nature of her ideas.
It’s ultimately this lack of imagination that scuppers The Kindergarten Teacher, despite its intriguing elements. The viewpoint it espouses is nabbed straight from the earliest, most thematically blatant Black Mirror episodes and there’s little or no depth in the way it approaches its character’s bizarre antics. There is, however, a well-acted story of an oddball relationship here, which at least tries to say something about how the modern world greets prodigious talent.
Dir: Sara Colangelo
Scr: Sara Colangelo, Nadav Lapid
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus, Rosa Salazar, Ajay Naidu
Prd: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
DOP: Pepe Avila del Pino
Music: Asher Goldschmidt
Run time: 96 mins
The Kindergarten Teacher is in UK cinemas now.