Many, many spoilers follow. Trigger warnings also: this movie deals with a teacher’s emotionally abusive relationship with a very young student.
I’ve been thinking a lot about The Kindergarten Teacher since Mel and I went to see it on Wednesday evening.
There’s much that it does well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lisa, the eponymous teacher at a Staten Island kindergarten. There was never a second where I didn’t buy Lisa’s relationship with her family, or with Jimmy, the child she becomes obsessed with after hearing him recite seemingly improvised poetry one day after school. I was similarly convinced by her quiet disappointment in her own creative efforts, dismissed as derivative by the fellow students in her poetry class, and how this feeds into her unhealthy later behaviour.
The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy – her steps incrementally further over the line past mere teacherly interest in his gifts; his bafflement at the lessons she wants to teach him, and keeps pulling him out of class for – is similarly sharply drawn. It intends to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. Two people walked out of the screening we attended, and about half of the audience kept laughing nervously as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly hard to defend: taking Jimmy into the bathroom during the other children’s nap times to give him a private lesson on subjects like seeing the world from your own unique perspective; giving him her phone number so he can call her if he writes another poem.
My disappointment with the film, to the extent you could call it that when I do think it successful on the whole, lies in the second half of the movie, and particularly the last act.
Lisa having sex with her poetry teacher, Simon (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes attracted to her after she begins to pass off Jimmy’s poetry as her own, is an unnecessary plot point. His later disappointment in her after she takes Jimmy to a poetry recital and he sees that she’s been up to would have been no less acute if their relationship had stayed purely that of a teacher and student.
Throughout the movie, we are shown Lisa’s teaching assistant, Meghan (later revealed by Jimmy to have been the inspiration behind his poem “Anna”; you can see the strings inside Lisa break as he says this. It’s the most psychologically acute moment in the film), noticing what Lisa is doing and watching her. Yet, she never says anything to her or to anyone in authority at the school. After Lisa defies Jimmy’s father and takes Jimmy to the poetry recital at a Manhattan bar, he removes Jimmy from the kindergarten, but he doesn’t call the police or report her beahviour to anyone at Jimmy’s school. Her husband asks her where she’d been on the night of the poetry recital, but didn’t notice on the previous evening when she’d taken Jimmy to an art gallery to show him some, frankly disturbing, paintings.
It’s hard, ultimately, to believe that things could get to the point they reach in the final act without someone stepping in to save Jimmy from what had long since become abusive behaviour from his teacher. As striking as the scenes by the lake are, and as poignant as it is that no one is there to hear Jimmy’s poem at the end of the movie as he sits alone in a police car, the film is at least slightly undermined by Lisa having so little oversight at the school that she is able to carry on this way without anyone calling her to account.
That I began thinking in these terms while watching the third act is a testament to the reality created by writer/director Sara Collangelo (who adapted the story from an Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid; I confess, I don’t know whether the teacher’s behaviour is challenged by anyone in his movie) throughout the rest of the movie. Collangelo builds a wholly believable world and set of motivations for Lisa that remain consistent throughout the film and are revealed to us beautifully through Pepe Avila del Pino’s camerawork as much as through her dialogue. His use of medium shots – repeatedly showing us Gyllenhaal towering over the children in her class – remind us constantly of her place in their lives as protector and educator, and the corruption of that in her relationship with Jimmy. The use of contrasting close-ups (showing us Gyllenhaal’s reactions to disappointment, or her increasingly discomforting physicality with Jimmy (touching his back, fondling his hair, whispering in his ear), are all the more claustrophobic and creepy. When the world and the relationships in it are this real-world credible, the more heightened elements of the plot necessarily stick out more.
Not a masterpiece, then, but thoughtful and provocative.