As it plunges its protagonist down a dark path, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher does come across an interesting moral conundrum—if a child is gifted, are the adults in that child’s life morally obligated to help him or her achiever her full potential? Unfortunately, the movie never sticks around to really explore this question, instead moving on to one woman’s personal dissent that feels more like a mid-life crisis by way of a very specific form of child abuse. Rather than delve into what it means to foster talent, especially artistic talent, and what artistry means when it comes from someone without much life experience, The Kindergarten Teacher opts to disturb and unsettle its audience by seeing the lengths its main character will go in a self-destructive quest to give her life meaning.
Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. She lives a peaceful existence with her husband (Michael Chernus), two teenage children, and aspires to become adept at poetry by taking continuing education courses. While her own poetry is derivative and unimpressive, one day she overhears Jimmy (Parker Sevak) reciting a poem she finds beautiful. Taken with his talent, she endeavors to foster his knack for poetry, but finds indifference from Jimmy’s nanny (Rosa Salazar) and father (Ajay Naidu). As her own family seems indifferent towards intellectual pursuits or even Lisa’s life in general, she becomes more invested in Jimmy’s talent, going to great and eventually disturbing lengths to foster the child’s ability.
What gives The Kindergarten Teacher it’s unsettling power is that we can tell that what Lisa is doing is for her own benefit regardless of Jimmy’s happiness or even safety. For all her desire to cloak her motives in developing Jimmy’s talent for poetry and railing against a world that wants to snuff out the things that make us different, it’s always clear that Lisa’s operating from selfish desires. There’s no way she could make Jimmy a better poet because he’s already a better poet than she is (at least by the movie’s standards), so essentially her biggest aspiration in life is to transcribe whatever comes out of his mouth when he recites a poem. We become more and more unnerved as she crosses boundaries like giving him her cellphone number, saying he can call her by her first name, and trying to become a partner of sorts (although thankfully there’s nothing sexual in their relationship) rather than a mentor. For Lisa, it’s about ego and self-delusion rather than accepting that she may not be able to make Jimmy into a world-renown poet.
As always, Gyllenhaal is astounding and to the film’s credit, Lisa is a great character in that she’s not particular likable or sympathetic, but at least she’s interesting even though her actions are incredibly creepy and damaging. Gyllenhaal wisely doesn’t try to win us to Lisa’s side as much as she plays the character with unflinching honesty, showing a woman slowly spiraling out of control and pursuing her own selfish ends at the cost of a child’s wellbeing. Even when the script ties to close Lisa in the box of a mid-life crisis, Gyllenhaal finds an interesting angle on the character that makes her more than just a wife and mother whose grown dissatisfied with her life. We buy Lisa’s passion even though we can see she’s lying to herself about what she truly wants.
The biggest problem with The Kindergarten Teacher is once you’re on that downwards spiral, there’s really no room to explore the more interesting questions the movie raises. There’s not much thought given to the notion of whether or not a five-year-old can create great art without life experience. It’s a bold move to make him an artistic prodigy rather than a math prodigy, a talent where his skill could be objectively measured, but it hits a dead end because no one really questions if a child can be a great artist. When Lisa takes Jimmy to a poetry reading, the crowd unquestioningly applauds his poems.
It’s fair that Colangelo didn’t want to tell that story, but the one she did choose was about a woman who keeps making worse and worse decisions, which makes for an incredibly uncomfortable viewing experience, but not necessarily a rewarding one. The interesting ideas the script presents are left by the wayside in favor of watching one woman’s self-destruction. With Gyllenhaal at the center, it’s always captivating, but by the end, the experience feels more voyeuristic than illuminating.
The Kindergarten Teacher will be available on Netflix on October 12th.