More than any other period in the cinematic calendar, the few months following the Oscars is absolutely the strangest time when it comes to movie releases. Not only are the theatres more full of foreign language films and unheralded indies than in the summer, autumn or winter, in the UK especially, we are treated to a bunch of releases that have been out and available to other corners of the world for what feels like months already. The Kindergarten Teacher, for example, premiered on Netflix in the US and Canada last October, but over the pond we are only just getting a theatrical release in mid March!
Based on a 2014 Israeli movie of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher tells the story of Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Staten Island teacher who crosses all acceptable, ethical and moral boundaries when she becomes obsessed with harbouring the talent of Jimmy (Parker Savek), a young boy in her class who displays a prodigal talent for poetry. Dissatisfied with the ambitions of her own teenage children and the mundane reality of her writing talents and life overall, the narrative proceeds in a painful procession of Lisa making just about every wrong decision that a person can make, seemingly confident in her pure cause while the audience are the ones left to sit back in horror at the uncomfortable, unprofessional and eventually illegal events that unfold.
This is a strange one to talk and think about, because whilst The Kindergarten Teacher is undeniably, absolutely excellent, it is also a massively uncomfortable and intense watch to the point where I could feel myself physically cringing and recoiling discomfort! This is, of course, every inch of what the filmmakers intended, and there is something ‘car crash’ like about the film in the sense that you know the worst is happening, but it is utterly compelling that you can’t take your eyes off it. I honestly can’t remember the last time a film that isn’t graphic or overtly ‘horrifying’ made me feel so viscerally unsettled.
The movie asks lots of interesting and nuanced questions in between the handful of very concrete uncomfortable sequences, questions about the value of talent, how far people should go in order to foster and preserve it, and just how much interest is too much interest when it comes to teachers and students. It’s important to note that there is no sexual element to this story, it doesn’t go down that well worn road. The film instead explores a much more complicated and complex moral and ethical dilemma. It might jump off the deep end somewhat in the final third, but the tension and anxiety has been so expertly built in the run up that every single filmmaking decision made within the narrative feels like the perfect one.
As Lisa Spinelli, Maggie Gyllenhaal is nothing short of outstanding, so much so that I can’t believe she didn’t attract Oscar level award buzz over the last few months. As the titular kindergarten teacher, Gyllenhaal gives a painfully perfect performance, a woman just about holding it together in a life that does the opposite of satisfy her. There is a sickly sweetness to her manner that one can never be sure is totally genuine or not, and there is something about the way Gyllenhaal behaves in the film that feels one second sympathetic, the very next second sinister. It really is the kind of performance that you can’t take your eyes off, a mean and brilliant trick when you want nothing more than to look away from the character’s descent in to dangerous decision making.
Young Parker Savek puts in a fine child performance as Jimmy, hitting all his marks and giving lines with feeling. He evokes a painful kind of vulnerability in the way that his teacher becomes overfamiliar, whilst at the same time keeping a tense distance from Lisa that only serves to stoke the fires of her interest even further. Together, the pair share a perfectly executed one sided chemistry, one that is almost too awkward to watch at times, but one that remains utterly compelling throughout.
Of all the supporting roles, Gael Garcia Bernal arguably makes the most impact as Simon, the leader of an evening poetry class that Lisa attends. Artistic, romantic, idealistic and seemingly free of familial constraints, Bernal embodies the type of social companion that Lisa wishes she was surrounded by, and his physical beauty and appeal is in direct contrast to the more mundane, ‘homely’ appearance of Lisa’s long time husband Grant, played by Michael Chernus.
Overall, The Kindergarten Teacher is probably one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year, second only to The Favourite at this point. It’s not a film that is going to feel like a good time, but it is certainly one that will challenge you and shake you and leave you thinking about the story and themes for weeks afterwards. I can’t profess to being a complete connoisseur, but this has to be up there among the greatest performances of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career.