Netflix is churning out more original films and programming than most major studios. This past week Netflix has released their newest original film, after having a short run at both Sundance and the Toronto Film Festivals. It’s a remake of the 2014 Israeli Film “The Kindergarten Teacher”. This time directed with a woman’s perspective by filmmaker Sara Colangelo who took home best director for the film at Sundance.
Colangelo moves the story from Israel to New York City, where Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sister to Jake Gyllenhaal) gives a career best, superbly magnificent screen performance as “The Kindergarten Teacher”. Like the original foreign film from 2014, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a study of sadness that gradually devolves into genuine mental disturbance. Colangelo tells the story with restraint that only helps amplify the intrigue. It touches on parenting, adulthood, mentorship, and questions the motivations of those who uses a child’s development as a way to keep their own self-esteem afloat. Sara Colangelo’s intimate drama withholds lot about its main character, which allows Maggie Gyllenhaal to sketch and create the outline of a fractured soul.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa who has taught kindergarten for 20 years, she finds ample satisfaction in being around children. This enjoyment may partly be a response to the fact that her own kids, who are in high school, no longer have much use for their mother. Then one day, she’s entranced by Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a boy who she thinks to be a poetry prodigy. Convinced Jimmy needs to reach his artistic potential, Lisa starts insinuating herself more and more into his life. Lisa always projects an air of confidence and competence but there are hints throughout the film that she unravelling. Such as her decision to scratch her own creative inch by enrolling in an adult education poetry class taught by the dashing instructor Gael García Bernal. When her poems receive little enthusiasm, she starts pawning little 5 year old Jimmy’s work off as her own, attracting her teacher’s attention.
Why does she commit these acts of plagiarism? Why does she start calling the boy at home? And what, ultimately, is her ambition for Jimmy? “The Kindergarten Teacher” creates those questions, leaving Lisa’s actions inscrutable.
One of the reasons Maggie Gyllenhaal is such a great actress, and what’s so strong about her portrayal is that she portrays it as not even herself seems to know her own motivations and she certainly doesn’t share them with anyone around her. Slowly, Colangelo starts to flesh out Lisa’s home life and childhood to insinuate what could possibly be driving Lisa’s obsession to showcase Jimmy’s talent.
As the film progresses, Lisa begins to cross boundary after boundary in her relationship with Jimmy and in her pursuit to “protect” his talent from what she sees as a culture largely disinterested in poetry. Lisa gives the five year old her cell phone number and encourages him to call her whenever he has a poem, but Lisa begins to call Jimmy when she herself is feeling lonely or sad or not seen. He answers “Why are you calling me?”, Lisa tells him “Kindergarten Teachers can call their students It’s ok”. Much of the film’s tension exists in the spaces between what Lisa is doing and what the viewer thinks is appropriate. “The Kindergarten Teacher” encourages the audience to ask: At what point does Lisa go too far? And is Lisa acting from a place of good intentions or merely selfish desires?
Her actions toward Jimmy become so disturbing, his parents take action by transferring him to a new school, a choice that brings Lisa to the breaking point. This is where the film heads into the feeling of a thriller territory as she kidnaps Jimmy from his new school and goes off to a lake resort where they can share deep thoughts and a hotel room. There is a choice she makes that makes you cringe and scream at the TV and sweat in worry. It’s hard not to think “WTF?!” as the film drifts into a creepy suspense thriller that makes us fear for the child. What is this grown woman doing with a five-year-old who barely speaks until he says, “I have a poem”? Is Lisa a professional or a predator? Luckily, Colangelo doesn’t pursue the worst case scenario. But she does take us to an unsettling place. The film doesn’t offer literal answers. “The Kindergarten Teacher” is superb work and can be found in Gyllenhaal’s performance and Colangelo’s direction. Jimmy is not the only one who has something to say. For the young child actor, filmmaker Sara Colangelo and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this movie is their poem. It’s one of the year’s best films.
GRADE: ★★★★ (4) / ★★★★★ (5) Netflix