The Kindergarten Teacher
In Netflix’s dramatic thriller, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” director Sara Colangelo creates a movie about kindergarten that is both gripping and unsettling.
Forty-something-year-old kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is bored with her peaceful yet unstimulating life in Staten Island, New York. She has a sweet but dull husband, children who are successful in school but not gifted enough to satisfy her lust for creativity and a dream of becoming a successful poet despite a lack of talent. Lisa attempts to find refuge in her unsatisfying life by taking part in a poetry class but grows disheartened by the instructor’s ambivalence to her mediocre-at-best poems. Lisa overhears one of her young students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), recite a poem after class and immediately becomes intrigued with the boy. This intrigue leads to an obsession as Lisa spends more time with Jimmy. She speaks with him alone about creativity as the rest of his classmates nap. She puts her number in his phone so he can call her when he thinks up a new poem. She even begins passing off his poems as her own in her poetry class, gaining the appreciation and respect that she so craves from the class and the instructor.
Lisa goes from having secret, private poetry lessons in the bathroom with Jimmy to taking him to a poetry reading without the permission of the child’s parents to debut his work to a live audience. Lisa’s antics turn from uncomfortable to dangerous in the movie’s thrilling finale, but Gyllenhaal’s exceptional performance throughout prevents her character from falling too far down the irredeemably villainous path that could easily have been portrayed by a less-skilled actor. Her interest in the child and his gifts turns into an obsession, and she goes to creepy and even criminal lengths in an attempt to preserve and foster his talent. The emotion and clear mental unraveling Gyllenhaal brings to the character helps keep her somewhat worthy of sympathy despite her disturbing actions. The movie leaves viewers torn between sympathizing with Lisa’s almost all-consuming devotion to the arts and helping Jimmy master his craft and cringing at the methods she takes in her attempt to achieve this.
Sevak’s performance is also well–done as he keeps viewers rooting for his character with his sweet look and meek voice. He plays a somewhat unrealistic role — it is hard to believe that a five–year–old would be able to produce such deep works of poetry, but the young actor does an exceptional job at performing the poetry with emotion and ease. Watching Jimmy pace back and forth while reciting advanced poetry can sometimes seem far-fetched, but Sevak pulls the recitations off nicely by not being overly confident in his recitations but rather shy and thoughtful.
Though the two main actors are strong, the script and plotting at times can seem almost too unrealistic. Lisa is clearly an educated, experienced teacher, but, from the moment she hears Jimmy’s first poem, she begins to act strange and unprofessional. It seems unlikely that the teaching assistant, who is always around when Lisa takes Jimmy away from the rest of the class at nap time, fails to say anything about the behavior to Lisa or anyone else.
While much of the film takes place in a kindergarten classroom, the director makes the interesting choice of keeping the film dark and gloomy. Most scenes are shot with the lights out, and it is at naptime that Lisa most often takes Jimmy aside to speak with him about his poems. The murky atmosphere of the film works well to set the dark tone of the movie.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” succeeds in making a movie that is creepy and uncomfortable to watch but also thought-provoking and sad. Though she continues on an increasingly immoral path throughout the movie, Lisa can be sympathized with and even pitied as an overzealous appreciator of the arts who only wants to ensure that Jimmy’s poetry is not ignored and forgotten in a world of social media and screens. This movie is incredibly topical in a society in which arts are increasingly ignored for screens, but “The Kindergarten Teacher” begs the question of how far one should go to encourage young talent.