Sara Colangelo (director)
1h 36mins (length)
07 March 2019 (released)
13 March 2019
Maggie Gyllenhaaal is known for playing flawed, questionable characters in films like Secretary and Frank and TV shows like The Honourable Woman and The Deuce, and she continues this trend with The Kindergarten Teacher, based on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name.
She plays Lisa Spinelli, who has been teaching kindergarten for about 20 years. She is dissatisfied with her home life in Staten Island - her marriage to Grant (Michael Chernus) has lost its spark, she is feeling distant from her teenage kids Josh (Sam Jules) and Lainie (Daisy Tahan), and fails to impress with her "derivative" poetry during an adult evening class.
One day, her pupil Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) is picked up late from school by his nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) and Lisa hears him reciting a poem, which she quickly jots down. She is amazed by the five-year-old's creative talent and receives rave reviews from teacher Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal) when she seemingly passes Jimmy's poem off as her own in her evening class.
From then on, Lisa becomes obsessed with Jimmy, convinced that he is a child prodigy and determined to help him nuture his talent as it is clear his family and nanny don't care. She crosses boundaries to help inspire his imagination and gives him her number so he can call her with his poems when they spring to mind, which she then takes to class.
Her behaviour gets more morally questionable as the film continues, and it becomes quite unsettling as she continues to blur the lines in the teacher-student relationship.
The film rests firmly on Gyllenhaal's shoulders as she is in every scene of the film and her character drives the story.
Her performance is captivating and shocking, but she always makes you understand where Lisa is coming from and why she is behaving that way. She is not portrayed as evil - just as a person whose obsession has got out of hand. Gyllenhaal's performance is so well crafted that you feel sorry for Lisa more than anything.
Sevak is an adorable and clever co-star and you can never tell if he actually cares about pursuing poetry or not, while Bernal was charming as Lisa's teacher attracted to her talent.
The tension mounts within the last 45 minutes and ends up in a disturbing and unbelievable place. However, it could have done with a five minute epilogue to explicitly reveal the outcome of the events, although you can imagine what happens without it.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a compelling and well-observed character study that becomes as tense as a thriller by the end. Gyllenhaal has never been better.