REVIEW | "The Kindergarten Teacher" at Sundance 2018

Maggie Gyllenhaal goes too far in to mentor one little boy


They say teacher's pets are terrible, but what about the teachers who find favorite students?

There is something far more complicated going in this film than just an odd teacher-student relationship. There are parents and children who don't interact normally with one another as they hardly seem to be speaking the same language. There is a loss of appreciation for things outside of the mundane. Most prominently, however, there is a woman who is losing her sense of herself and therefore her piece of mind, leading to some inexcusable actions. How do we react to such a character?

Directed by Sara Colangelo, who was last at Sundance in 2014 for her film Little Accidents, returns with a remake of an Israeli film that tells the story of a very gifted young boy who is able to recite poetry unlike the world has ever experienced before, and his teacher who is obsessed with this talent. In this version, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a forty year-old mother of two impossible teenagers, bored and numb from her days teaching kindergarten in Staten Island. While taking a poetry class in night school, she longs for something more than average. The mundane is broken up when she realizes one of her students possess a gift. Her curiosity quickly boils over into madness, however, putting the boy and herself in danger.

Tiffany Roohani

This film will make you uncomfortable, and perhaps even worried for children's safety in schools. Gyllenhaal wakes the boy up from naps to take him to the bathroom to recite poetry. She puts her number in his cell phone under "L." She tracks various members of his family down and even goes as far as to kidnap him from his home and have him spend the night at her house. This is all supposedly done in the name of preserving a talent she believes to be on the level on Mozart, but it's not necessarily easy to take this claim at face value.

Yes, the boy can write poetry, and it's better than Lisa's. However, it feels as though Colangelo is less interested in whether or not it is plausible that a woman could care so much about a child's talent (especially a woman who doesn't seem all that interested in her job to begin with) and more interested in what can happen when a person, most especially a woman, if left to whither away in a town that is fading into the black.

Juxtapose this film with Gyllenhaal's other role on the HBO program, The Deuce, where she steps into the shoes of a woman who is rewriting the porn industry by producing the films herself. Is there anything really more radical in her character in this film, a woman who wants to change the way that art is appreciated? On the surface, no, but the definitive change is in the way that she abuses her power as an adult to earn the trust of the child. Audiences around me looked away and mouthed expletives while watching this kind of behavior on screen. However, her motives don't feel entirely insane. It's impossible for you to say that you like the character of Lisa Spinelli, but it is equally as impossible for you to say that you haven't at one point in your life understood her frustration with her environment.

The film is not the best that Sundance had to offer this year, but it does have some of the strangest and most unsettling ideas it brought to mind. Scenes in it will stick to you like all of that heavy food you ingested back at the holidays. You won't be able to let many things go: the struggle of Gyllenhaal's character to write a poem as successfully as this young boy, the way she will take him out to a lake upstate and help him to find happiness that isn't quite in his home already, or the final scene, after all is said and done, where you aren't sure if either of their futures are brighter without the other.

Find out more about The Kindergarten Teacher here.

Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Visit her website for more.

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