The Kindergarten Teacher director Sara Colangelo on a problem character

In years to come, writer/director Sara Colangelo could look back at The Kindergarten Teacher and see it as something of a watershed. After warm receptions last year at Sundance, Toronto and London, it reached wider audiences around the world courtesy of Netflix, while in the UK it gets a cinematic release as of this week. And only last month it was announced that her next project sees her working with Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci on What Is Life Worth, a post-9/11story that was bubbling away under the surface while she was promoting The Kindergarten Teacher at the LFF.

A remake of an Israeli film from 2015 of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role, somebody who’s been in the same job for 20 years but suddenly has her enthusiasm restored by a little boy in her class who has a prodigious talent for poetry. Reflecting on the many people who’ve asked her if Gyllenhaal’s teacher is going through mental illness, Colangelo admits “I think this is a character who’s been starved creatively and a character who feels quite forgettable in her class and forgotten by her family.

“She’s at a point where her teenagers have their own lives: it’s a bit inevitable that her kids are going through the things that they’re going through in this movie. They’re pushing her away. I like to think of it as a portrait of a woman in mid-life, but also a woman who’s been caretaking for quite a long time, both as a mother and as a teacher. She’s been feeding a lot of people in her life, but now who’s feeding her? I think that’s the more interesting and heartbreaking story I wanted to tell. She’s somebody who desperately wants to be part of the creative process but is bulldozed in her own class and I hope that’s something that audiences can identify with.”

But she’s also the first to admit the character is problematic, having already divided audiences: some have felt a certain empathy for her, despite knowing that her actions are wrong, while others have found her totally unsympathetic. “It is challenging and I think it’s incredibly uncomfortable,” she comments. “I cast Maggie because she had a relatability and an intensity that would be great for the role and I hope that audiences are able to empathise a bit with her, even though she commits some awful transgressions and crosses a lot of sacred boundaries. But my heart breaks for her sometimes. Yet she’s selfish and she’s projecting her own needs onto this boy.”

Colangelo has gone on record as describing the film as a thriller, but recognises that it’s also something of a horror and a character study. “It’s all of those things. I really like realism and I like verite in the world of documentary, so a little bit of that is in everything I do and I knew I wanted to lean into the thriller genre.  But it doesn’t tick any of those boxes perfectly, so there are moments of drama and even dark comedy in it. Hopefully it makes for an interesting experience – I was really excited creating it.”

Gyllenhaal was her first choice for the title role and accepted it as soon as she’d read the script. Finding the right person to play the little boy who shares the story with her was a longer, more difficult process and Colangelo eventually chose young Parker Sevak, who had never acted before. The classmate of one of her casting director’s children, she discovered him after lengthy New York based search. “As we were whittling down the pool [of children], we put three or four boys on a tape with Maggie and had them read a few scenes. Parker just had this great ability to go on and off script in a very natural way. And he was able to engage in the poetry and then go back on script and he did it very fluidly and naturally.”

Sara Colangelo was talking to Freda Cooper.

The Kindergarten Teacher is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 8 March.

Read our review of the film here.