A Thin Blurred Line
The Kindergarten Teacher succeeds in spite of its dark and disturbing subject matter because of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance in the title role. She plays Lisa Spinelli, a New York kindergarten teacher who develops an unnatural obsession with one of her students and his innate ability to produce clever verses with a clarity and depth she believes is on par with Mozart’s genius. The film is writer/director Sara Colangelo’s riveting interpretation of Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s original 2014 film.
One afternoon Lisa notices a student named Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) mumbling to himself while she waits outside her classroom for his nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to pick him up. As Lisa enters the room to speak to him, she realizes that he has come up with a poem out of thin air about someone named Anna.
She feels dismayed after learning from Becca that Jimmy’s mother was never involved in his life. Furthermore, Jimmy’s father Nikhil (Ajay Naidu) is almost never home. In the rare instances when he is home, the man doesn’t spend much time with his son. Lisa urges Becca to drop everything and transcribe Jimmy’s creations and preserve them regardless of when and where they might come.
When Lisa sees that Becca isn’t capable of this task, she visits Jimmy’s uncle Sanjay (Samrat Chakrabarti) after Nikhil doesn’t respond to any of her calls. Lisa pressures him to him to reach out to his brother to nurture Jimmy’s newly discovered talent and portrays Becca as a negative influence on him. When this leads nowhere Lisa takes it upon herself to pay Nikhil an unexpected visit at work.
While delighted that Lisa recognizes Jimmy is intelligent, Nikhil despises his brother Sanjay who proofreads a local newspaper and thinks writing as a profession is impractical. He would rather Jimmy play baseball than attend a poetry reading with her where he would share two of his poems that she believes would showcase the child’s genius.
Lisa shifts the conversation to Becca, and Lisa paints her as constantly talking down to Jimmy, always late and completely inattentive. She insists that Nikhil allow her to mind Jimmy after school instead of Becca.
Lisa painstakingly gains dominion over Jimmy’s life. There is a thin line between watching someone else’s child for a few hours and making decisions that go against a parent’s wishes or could jeopardize their child’s safety. That line is blurred for Lisa. She deliberately goes behind Nikhil’s back to make sure Jimmy appears at the poetry reading, even after Jimmy’s father tells her no. Lisa doesn’t even think about the consequences of her unwise decision.
Inhabiting Lisa’s mind was a painful experience for Gyllenhaal. The actress recently stated that she portrayed the character as being driven crazy by the culture she finds herself in and as someone whose mind is starved and dissatisfied but tries to fix her dire situation in a confused and extremely problematic way. The actress made the wise decision to approach Lisa as a chameleon forever morphing in front of us but whose real personality never comes into focus.
I believe The Kindergarten Teacher would not have worked as well if Colangelo hadn’t cast Gyllenhaal in the lead. Also, Sevak – who makes his debut here -- is perfectly cast as Jimmy. He listens wonderfully while soaking in his environment as well as Lisa’s every word and never uttering much more than his poems until the film’s climax.
(Released by NETFLIX. Rated R by MPAA for some language and nudity.)