The uncommonly adventurous Maggie Gyllenhaal hits a new career peak with The Kindergarten Teacher, compelling us to understand a woman who maybe doesn’t understand herself. That’s an apt description of her Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island wife and mother who’s been teaching kindergarten for 20 years — the kind of person whose soft voice barely disguises the fact that she’s screaming inside. Lisa has dreams of being a poet, an artistic calling whose wheels have come off as the culture dives further into digital, short-attention-span freefall. She has a decent husband (Michael Chernus) who cares — or pretends to — that she takes an adult education course in poetry writing. Her two teenage children (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules) are way too wrapped up in their own lives to make time for her. To make matter worse, Lisa’s flirty instructor, nicely done by Gael García Bernal, doesn’t think her work is very good.
It’s at this point that you may be ready to write off the movie as one of those well-meaning exercises in midlife angst. Don’t you dare. Gyllenhaal is not one to color inside the box, and neither is writer-director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents). In shifting Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s 2014 drama into an American context, this English-language remake throws audiences to places they won’t see coming. It may seem conventional when Lisa takes an interest in her student Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a quiet boy who unprompted will start reciting lines that read as poetry. She is dumbstruck. How can a child know so much of life? So the woman writes down Jimmy’s words and passes them off as her own in poetry class. Suddenly, her teacher is impressed. And there’s Lisa pressing Jimmy’s neglectful nanny (Rosa Salazar) to transcribe anything the the boy says.
At this point, you might thinking the film is becoming a cautionary tale about appropriating someone else’s work as your own. Wrong. Before long, Lisa is bringing Jimmy to a poetry reading in Manhattan (against the explicit orders of his divorced father), letting the audience and her teacher see what he can do. Jimmy, half scared and half exhilarated, does himself proud. But her deception gets her booted out of poetry class.
Does rejection destroy this would-be patron of the arts? You’d think. But no. Instead Lisa makes Jimmy her cause. She sneaks him out of kindergarten during nap time and into a rest room where she pushes him to create. It’s no wonder his parents transfer him to a new school, an incident that brings his former teacher to the breaking point, as she kidnaps Jimmy from his new school and sweeps off her prodigy to a lake resort where they can share deep thoughts and a room.
It’s hard not to think “WTF?!” as the film drifts into a creepy suspense thriller that makes us fear for the child. What is this grown woman doing with a five-year-old who barely speaks until he says, “I have a poem”? Is Lisa a professional or a predator? Luckily, Colangelo doesn’t pursue the worst-case scenario. But she does take us to an unsettling place where her heroine has become unmoored from reality. The film doesn’t offer literal answers, glib or profound. The art that The Kindergarten Teacher is scanning can be found in Gyllenhaal’s eyes, hungry for a life of the mind and one starved of meaning. Jimmy is not the only one who has something to say. For the filmmaker and her star, this movie is their poem.