A teacher takes intrusive measures to mentor one of her students.
Directed by Sara Colangelo
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, and Gael Garcia Bernal
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The female midlife crisis gets less play than the male one that so dominated the Golden Age of Television, and Colangelo and Gyllenhaal do their part to remedy this imbalance. The idea of the midlife crisis, so usually associated with acting out financially or sexually, is based on this grandiose and selfish rebellion against the barriers that society erects. I’ve followed the rules thus far, and what has it gotten me? Lisa imagines herself as the only person in Jimmy’s life who can bring his gift to the world, with the added benefit of basking in some reflected glory. There might’ve been a point where her kids served that role, but in her view, the daughter is captured by teenage frivolity and the son is going to let his individuality and creativity be squashed by the military. She perceives her world as empty and Jimmy can fill it up, thus giving her life the meaning that her job and her family have not.
The question of if Jimmy is a good poet cannot be answered by this viewer. I often have to take a film’s word on quality whenever some kind of art form is presented, be it poetry or painting or even music. When a film sells the passion behind creation, like recent films such as Blaze or A Star is Born do, then it’s an easy leap for me to make. In The Kindergarten Teacher, Jimmy is acting his age, so there’s not a lot of passion in anything he does. As the source of this supposed profundity, he’s neither excited to craft his poems nor believable as being able to do so. His poems use more complex language than he does in conversation, so I never buy that the actor is doing anything other than reciting his lines. Characters say his work is good, but it sounds pretty similar to Lisa’s poems, which the same characters say is bad. There’s a trope in films that feature literature where a character reads something in class, and everyone withholds their opinion until the teacher rules it good or bad. That’s me watching The Kindergarten Teacher.
This is the film’s primary stumbling block, but it’s not really about Jimmy or poetry. What Lisa does with this opportunity is more compelling than a literary prodigy sprouting up in Staten Island. Her hollow insistence that the world has no room for poetry is obviously wrong, as she’s in an artistic center where people do indeed have time for recitations and readings. The root of the film, in which Lisa is confronted with her own mediocrity, calls to mind another film about prodigies. Mozart is mentioned a few times, a fitting reference when Lisa has so much Salieri in her from Amadeus. She doesn’t try and sabotage Jimmy like Salieri does, but her motives are essentially the same. Both characters want to elevate themselves and salve their wounded egos, no matter what they have to do to the real talents that surround them.
In playing a blinkered and unlikable protagonist, Gyllenhaal does a great job in staying understandable and occasionally sympathetic. Her loneliness and neediness are what comes across clearest. The tentative way she reads her poem to Jimmy is a painful reversal of authority roles, as is her choice to intellectually isolate herself in her own house. Buried beneath other plots and ideas is the sneaking suspicion that a person doesn’t have anything in common with the people they’ve chosen to spend their lives around, a potent fear that Gyllenhaal is backgrounding when her daughter shows no interest in her.
Colangelo previously made the solid ensemble morality play Little Accidents about a tragedy in an Appalachian town. Here, she benefits from a character study, reducing the number of characters and focusing in on the psyche of her protagonist. The Kindergarten Teacher might be unable to get me to appreciate poetry, but it does cause some reflection on my own cynicism. A film that makes the viewer look inward is succeeding. B