Teaching Outside the Lines (Film Review: “The Kindergarten Teacher”)

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A kindergarten teacher is convinced her student is the next Mozart, but her enthusiasm crosses the line from supportive to obsessive in this raw and unnerving drama.

Snap Shot Plot

So here’s the thing about Maggie Gyllenhaal. From early on in her impressive career, she’s pushed the boundaries on ‘mainstream’ roles for women. Whether it be an aberrant sexual workplace dynamic (in 2002’s Secretary co-starring James Spader) or a felon newly released from prison on drug charges (2006’s Sherrybaby) this is an actor who doesn’t play it safe. The Kindergarten Teacher is no exception, and Gyllenhaal resonates beautifully in the role of a morally and psychologically conflicted teacher who takes artistic patronage to dangerous levels.

Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) is a NYC kindergarten teacher who yearns for a bohemian existence beyond the staid, boring life she has with her husband and grown children. A devoted teacher, Miss Spinelli tries to encourage creativity in her small charges and only comes alive when she’s in the throes of an invigorating lesson. Otherwise, she seems to sleepwalk through her days. She thinks herself a poet and has recently been attending an adult education class in free form poetry, taught by (a miscast) Gael García Bernal. One day, as the last of her students (an Indian boy named Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak) is waiting to be picked up by his nanny, the child abruptly begins to pace the floor, uttering what sounds to be a poem. Lisa is stunned, realizing she’s just witnessed a real child prodigy, a poetic genius in her estimation. She immediately begins to ingratiate herself to Jimmy, singling him out at every opportunity, ‘stealing’ him away from the other children for creatively stimulating conversations (way above his maturity level) and even seeking out his family with the goal of inserting herself indelibly into this young boy’s world. It’s as if she’s decided that no matter the limitations of her own talent, she can make her mark on the world as the patron who brings the next Mozart (as she calls him) into the literary spotlight. So engrossing is her full-blown obsession with Jimmy’s talent that Lisa loses her moral compass completely, all the while painting herself as the child’s singular, sole artistic savior. Her self-appointed role, in her mind, is one of artistic patronage for the world’s benefit. It’s not long before Lisa’s obsession assumes control and she takes matters into her own, unhinged hands.

 

 

Parting Shot

Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, The Kindergarten Teacher is actually a remake of the 2014 Israeli film by the same name. As in the original, the concept of Genius is a central argument in the film. It’s a pivotal point, too, in that the justification for Lisa’s actions (notwithstanding how aberrant and wrong) is actually somewhat elastic. For argument’s sake, let’s assume Jimmy is in fact a natural poetic genius in the raw, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in centuries. A diamond in the rough. Without the intervention of a Miss Spinelli, might that talent be wasted, never to be cultivated for the world? What is the role of patrons in today’s society, and are we discouraging the Arts to entire generations of children?

The truth in this film, however, touches on a whole other level of artistic patronage, one much darker and dangerous than the cultivation of genius in a child. It’s the cultivation of genius notwithstanding the child. Lisa’s obsession, as stated earlier, is not with Jimmy the boy; it’s with his poetry. Nothing else truly matters. Her affection for him stems from his talent only. We can see and hear it in her preening behavior with him, her ambition so transparent as she’s vigilantly at the ready, notebook in hand, to copy down his every word as if heaven sent. Her obsession has eclipsed the child’s identity. She has objectified him by virtue of his creative genius. Jimmy the boy has ceased to exist in Lisa’s mind, once his talent has seized hold of her fevered and fractured psyche. I wonder if the people who massaged Mozart’s little hands and fed him candy at the piano were so guileless in their patronage?

The Kindergarten Teacher is presently streaming on Netflix.

 

YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n1NP6w5lXs

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