The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Poetry and obsession

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The heroine of “The Kindergarten Teacher”, which was recently released on Netflix in US, is very unhappy for a reason most of us are familiar with. While she has aspiration for what she likes to do, she unfortunately lacks talent for that, and she knows that too well. When she happens to discover someone far more talented, she cannot help but obsessed with the talent of that person in question, and the movie later becomes darker than expected as she is further driven by her evidently unhealthy obsession.

The movie opens with another usual day of Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a kindergarten teacher working in a neighborhood area of New York City. After carefully preparing for her time with the kids in her kindergarten class, she handles them with care and attention while usually accompanied with her assistant teacher, and we come to see that she is a good professional who does know how to interact with kids.

After her working hour is over, Lisa goes to an evening poetry class taught by a teacher named Simon (Gael García Bernal). As watching her listening to every helpful word from Simon, we come to sense how much she aspires to write good poems, but, alas, she has been struggling to write anything good enough to impress her teacher and classmates. When she recites the result of her latest attempt, it only gets criticized by her classmates for what it lacks, and she naturally feels daunted and frustrated as returning to her suburban home.

At her home, Lisa does not have anyone to talk with her on poetry. Her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) is a nice guy, but he does not seem to be much interested in poetry, and neither do her two teenage children, who are mostly occupied with each own private matter and do not interact a lot with their parents. At one point, we see them having a pizza dinner with their mutual friend while their parents look at them from the distance, and we can feel the growing generation gap between them and their parents.

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One day, Linda happens to witness something extraordinary at her kindergarten. When one of the kids under her supervision, a boy named Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), is being left alone in the classroom due to the late arrival of his divorced father’s girlfriend, he casually mutters some words, and Linda instinctively recognizes that he has just made a poem for himself. I must confess that I do not have enough understanding of poetry, but his poem is so simple and beautiful that I can still remember it now: “Anna is beautiful/Beautiful enough for me/The Sun shines her yellow house/It is almost like a sign from God”

Impressed by Jimmy’s natural talent for poetry, Lisa comes to feel the need to get more from him, and she also becomes determined to get his talent more promoted and nurtured, but she only comes to see that Jimmy does not get much support from others close to him. While his father’s girlfriend does not pay much attention to Jimmy, his father is usually busy with his nightclub business, and he simply wants his son to enjoy more ordinary things like baseball.

Lisa decides to draw some attention and support from Simon, but she chooses to do that in a wrong way. At the poetry class, she presents Jimmy’s poem as her latest one, and she certainly impresses not only Simon but also others in the class. Surprised by her unexpected ‘talent’, Simon wants to get more from Lisa, so she steals more from Jimmy, who comes to trust her a lot as she shows him more care and attention than before.

Lisa eventually gets invited to a poetry recital meeting, but the situation becomes disturbing as she becomes more fixated on Jimmy’s talent. Later in the story, she crosses the line without any hesitation just because she wants to show Jimmy’s talent to people who will probably appreciate his talent as much as her, and we later get an alarming moment as she lets herself driven further by her obsession.

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Although her character accordingly becomes less sympathetic than before, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also participated in the production of the film, keeps engaging us as before, and the result is another solid performance from a wonderful actress who has consistently impressed us with numerous good performances including her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Crazy Heart” (2009). As she subtly conveys to us her character’s thoughts and feelings, we come to understand her character more even when we observe her character’s wrong deeds from the distance, and Gyllenhaal is particularly good when her character struggles with conflicting emotions at the aforementioned poetry recital meeting.

In case of several substantial supporting performers surrounding her, Michael Chernus and Gael García Bernal are also fine in their respective roles, and young performer Parker Sevak holds his own place well besides Gyllenhaal while functioning as another crucial part of the movie. Like many smart kids, Jimmy can clearly discern what is going on around him, and we are not so surprised when he does what should be done for him around the finale.

Thanks to the competent direction of director Sara Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from the acclaimed Israeli film of the same name, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a small but absorbing character drama, and I enjoyed its many sharp, sensitive moments. Its achievement is modest, but it distinguishes itself with thoughtful storytelling and commendable performance, and that is more than enough for recommendation in my opinion.

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