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Sticking largely to the narrative template of Nadav Lapid’s well-received 2014 Israeli film, writer-director Sara Colangelo has crafted a most peculiar and beguiling drama with her American adaptation of The Kindergarten Teacher.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, intensely present throughout every scene, follows her tough, internalized work on HBO’s addictive The Deuce with an equally compelling performance as the title character, whose out-of-control mission of artistic mentorship in an increasingly soul-deadening world blurs the lines between nurturing and leeching. Rippling with psychological complexity and sneaky humor, this is a rich character study that takes constantly surprising turns, which should appeal to audiences hungry for idiosyncratic adult drama.
The first image in the film, shot with limpid widescreen elegance by Pepe Avila del Pino, introduces 40ish Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal), a Staten Island kindergarten teacher for almost 20 years, sitting down for a breather after class on a child-size chair. Her look of exhaustion suggests fatigue or perhaps boredom, but her gnawing dissatisfaction is revealed to have deeper causes.
Lisa is in the fourth week of an adult-education poetry class taught by a charismatic instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose smiling encouragement doesn’t extend to her pedestrian compositions about flowers and butterflies. Even her husband (Michael Chernus), though he’s diligently supportive, is unconvincing in his enthusiasm. And her teenage kids are minimally communicative — her daughter (Daisy Tahan) seldom looks up from her phone, while her son (Sam Jules) is quietly making alternative college plans that go against liberal-artsy Lisa’s wishes.
Colangelo sketches this situation with swift, economical strokes, complemented by composer Asher Goldschmidt’s fretful score for strings and piano. The film almost imperceptibly builds evidence of Lisa’s encroaching emptiness, the full extent of which only gradually becomes clear.
A light is switched on when she hears one of her students, Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a 5-and-a-half-year-old kid of Indian extraction, spontaneously creating a poem of unexpected depth and elliptical beauty while pacing back and forth in a quasi-fugue state. She grills the boy’s millennial nanny, Becca (Rosa Salazar), asking about similar occurrences, and begs her to write down anything Jimmy comes up with that resembles a poem. When Becca complies, Lisa begins reading the freeform compositions as her own work in her evening classes. Suddenly, her stock soars, both with the teacher and with the somewhat competitive other students.
“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” reads a Wallace Stevens quote on the blackboard. The choice of that most delicate of art forms in Israeli writer-director Lapid’s original story was a smart one, and Colangelo runs with it, posing contemplative questions about all the nuances of expression that are being erased in hyper-connected contemporary life.
Lisa presents herself as a crusader intent on ensuring that her baby prodigy is given space to thrive. She reaches out for help from his uncle (Samrat Chakrabarti), a newspaper copy editor with a literary bent, but doesn’t get far. Nor is Jimmy’s divorced nightclub owner father (Ajay Naidu) keen to encourage the boy toward intellectual pursuits, preferring to steer him into competitive sports and from there into the business world. So Lisa takes charge by insinuating herself more deeply into Jimmy’s life, her ability to separate good intentions from inappropriate behavior becoming increasingly fuzzy.
Considering that the welfare and stability of a pint-sized kid are at stake, the degree to which humor factors in is remarkable. There’s a cruel, sardonic edge to several beautifully observed moments between Lisa and her own family. Likewise in her exposure to her poetry teacher as the Salieri to Jimmy’s Mozart, which comes with an added sting when the boy reveals the surprise romantic subject of one of his more memorable odes.
Even as Lisa goes completely rogue, and the suspenseful thriller element is fortified, the tonal mix of searing melancholy and danger is tempered with playful notes.
There’s fine work from the supporting cast, notably the extraordinary young Sevak, who veers between distraction and intuitive perceptiveness with never a false moment. Salazar smartly underplays the shallowness of aspiring actress Becca — whom it’s suggested either is or was sleeping with Jimmy’s dad — to amusing effect. Bernal exudes easy charm with just the slightest hint of smugness. Chernus sketches a sweet-natured, devoted man not quite equipped to read the signs of his wife’s midlife crisis. And Anna Baryshnikov is a lovely, dreamy presence as Lisa’s teaching assistant.
But the movie belongs to the luminous Gyllenhaal, who can be simultaneously inscrutable and an open book. She keeps us guessing about the degree to which Lisa is on a mission to cultivate a truly gifted child, or in desperate, selfish flight from the disappointment and mediocrity of her life. The brick wall of her own artistic ambitions puts her in a sad, lonely place, which means that although her actions become unhinged, she’s never unsympathetic or even entirely unbalanced. The closing image of Jimmy alone, muttering “I have a poem,” also leaves us with the haunting impression that Lisa’s fears for art, sensitivity and meaning in a hardening world may be legitimate.
Production companies: Pie Films, Maven Pictures, Paper Chase Films, in association with Farcaster Films, Pia Pressure, Manhattan Productions, Imagination Park Entertainment
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Rosa Salazar, Anna Baryshnikov, Michael Chernus, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ajay Naidu, Samrat Chakrabarti, Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules
Director-screenwriter: Sara Colangelo, based on the film by Nadav Lapid
Producers: Talia Kleinhendler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
Executive producers: Tmira Yardeni, Carole Scotta, Navad Lapid, Pia Getty, : Jenny Halper, Nic Marshall, Dillon D. Jordan, Christopher S. Burke, Chip Rosenbloom, Stephen Mao, Brendan Walsh, Bradley J. Ross, Gabriel Napora, Lee Broda, Jeff Rice
Director of photography: Pepe Avila del Pino
Production designer: Mary Lena Colston
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Music: Asher Goldschmidt
Editors: Marc Vives, Lee Percy
Casting: Stephanie Holbrook, Henry Russel Bergstein
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
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