Hands up if your favourite teacher in the movies is one of the following. The inspirational John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society. The equally inspirational but dangerously misguided Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. The bogus Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in School Of Rock. Or Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer), Marine-turned-teacher in Dangerous Minds. Great characters all of them, even if they have their shortcomings, but it’s unlikely that the one at the centre of Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher would feature on anybody’s list.
Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has taught kindergarten for 20 years and is becoming increasingly aware of middle age. She finds less satisfaction in being a wife and mother, seeking stimulation outside the home by going to a poetry class, and even her job is slowly becoming repetitive. But in her latest class is Jimmy (Parker Sevak), an intelligent little boy who demonstrates a remarkable gift for poetry. Lisa is concerned that his talent isn’t being sufficiently recognized either at home or at school and decides to encourage him herself – something that leads her to cross professional and personal boundaries.
Lisa is the epitome of something we’re frequently encouraged to do – do the right thing. Her motives for nurturing Jimmy’s talent are laudible: she’s afraid that his gift will die in a world where mobile phones and video games rule, so she decides to take him to museums and to have him present his own work at a poetry reading. And more. But what she’s doing is taking things way too far, crossing an invisible and inviolable line and invading the territory occupied by the boy’s family. Worse still, she’s completely unaware of the effect it will have on both the child and his father. Because this is really all about her.
All of which makes her sound unsympathetic and, indeed, there are times when it’s hard to understand the reasons for her actions. Yet, despite the fact that what she does is just plain wrong, it’s difficult to completely harden your heart against her. She’s a middle aged woman who feels her best years are behind her. At home, being a wife and mother holds little satisfaction so she takes an evening class to give her an outside interest. Her job, much as she loves it and the children that she teaches, is becoming repetitive and, now in her forties, the menopause has made its first appearance, reminding her of her own mortality. Put all that together, and you have somebody looking for meaning, for purpose in their life. And in Lisa’s case, that purpose happens to be somebody else’s little boy.
Colangelo describes the film as a thriller and the plot is certainly structured in that way, building tension up to the very end. But it’s a thriller that concentrates single-mindedly on a psychological study of its central character, somebody utterly convinced they are doing the right thing to the detriment of everything and everybody else. And somebody who sees themselves as the hero of the story. Do we? Yes – and no. We’re back to the dilemma at the heart of the film: doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
The choice of the actor to play Lisa was crucial and Colangelo has played a blinder in her choice of Maggie Gyllenhaal who gives what is easily a career defining performance to date – sensitive, compelling, sympathetic yet undeniably selfish and obsessive. She’s hardly ever off the screen, commanding it all the way and taking us with her, despite our reservations. In a small film, she’s a towering presence and is your number one reason for seeing something that could easily be overlooked when it’s released in the UK next year. If you can’t see it at the London Film Festival this year, make sure you seek it out next February. It will be one of your best decisions of 2019.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama, Thriller | Cert: tbc | London Film Festival 18 and 20 October (2018) | UK, 8 February (2019) | Thunderbird Releasing | Dir. Sara Colangelo | Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gael Garcia Bernal, Parker Sevak, Michael Chernus and Rosa Salazar.