tue 17/09/2019

The Kindergarten Teacher review - obsession, talent and the power of poetry | reviews, news & interviews

The Kindergarten Teacher review - obsession, talent and the power of poetry

The Kindergarten Teacher review - obsession, talent and the power of poetry

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a cautionary tale of going beyond the call of duty

Waiting for the muse: Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Jimmy (Parker Sevak)

Lisa, the kindergarten teacher in question (a mesmerising Maggie Gyllenhaal), is taking evening classes in poetry. Twenty years of teaching and raising her three kids, now monosyllabic, mean teens, have left her desperate for culture and a creative outlet. Her stolid husband (Michael Chernus) tries his best to be supportive, but he doesn’t really get it. “My teacher says I need to put more of myself into my work,” she sighs, as she picks at a dull salad at home in Staten Island after class. Well, that’s not going to happen.

Director Sara Colangelo’s adaptation of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid is intense – you can’t take your eyes off Gyllenhaal, whose facial expressions convey Lisa’s thwarted, obsessive nature brilliantly. It’s also profoundly unnerving, with a mystery at its core in the shape of five-year-old Jimmy Roy, played by diminutive newcomer Parker Sevak.

Jimmy has a gift: he’s a poet, the real thing. He paces backwards and forwards in the classroom as if possessed by an external force, and out the poems come, fully formed and terribly mature. Just in time for Lisa to grab a pen, write them down, and present them as her own at class, where her seductive poetry teacher Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal, pictured below) is mighty impressed by the improvement on her usual derivative “Mesmerise me, butterflies” stuff.  She becomes, by proxy, more alluring to him, by way of Jimmy's direct, incantatory poems: “Anna is beautiful/ Beautiful enough for me/ The sun hits her yellow house/ It’s almost like a sign from God.” I wonder who wrote them.

In other ways Jimmy’s a normal enough kid, dashing around the playground and saying naughty words like ho with his friends. This gets him a time out, which Lisa uses for her own ends, hoping he can complete her next poetry assignment: to find something new in the everyday. They stand hand in hand (Lisa is very tactile, kissing and hugging her charges, unusual in the current climate) and survey the classroom objects. “Do you feel anything?” she asks hopefully. “No,” replies Jimmy in a resigned tone. He looks as if he might find Lisa a bit of a pain.

kindergartenAnd so she is. She hauls him from nap-time to wheedle poems out of him in the bathroom, makes his nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) promise to be vigilant when the muse strikes - Becca agrees the poems are cool but thinks Jimmy’s a weirdo – and takes it upon herself to lecture Jimmy’s uncle and father (his mother is out of the picture, living it up in Miami). Lisa is insufferably superior. Jimmy is a young Mozart, she tells them, his talent is rare and fragile and he needs nurturing. No one has much time for this, so Lisa feels compelled to fill the gap, with awful results.

You feel for her, but she crosses the line into madness, and Gyllenhaal’s handling of this unsettling ambiguity is masterly. When Simon invites her to a poetry reading in the Bowery, she takes Jimmy along even though his father has forbidden it. No longer passing off his work as her own, she lets him recite and breaks down when he reveals to the audience that the Anna of the poem is actually Lisa’s teaching assistant (played by Anna Baryshnikov), then takes him home to sleep on the sofa without telling his father where he is. Further, creepier transgressions follow, tensions build and the denouement is shocking and sad.

There are many unanswered questions. Why isn’t she fired from her job? How is it possible for a five-year-old child to write such sophisticated poems? Would Lisa really be so eager to risk everything? Are her kids and husband really that bad? We’re left with the abstract quality of Jimmy’s gift and Lisa’s enervating despair at her shadowy, mediocre existence, and this isn’t quite enough to satisfy, though it comes close. In the last shot of Lisa, she looks like a madonna, lit from within. Jimmy has become her work, and she’s put her whole self into it.

Lisa crosses the line into madness and Gyllenhaal’s handling of this unsettling ambiguity is masterly


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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