“You’re going to be just a shadow like me.”
Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindergarten teacher whose life has stagnated. She takes a continuing education class in poetry to reignite the creative flame within her. But her contributions to class are mediocre and her teacher Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal) is unimpressed. One day she overhears her kindergarten student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) reciting an original poem. She begins to project her own desire for creative genius onto this gifted young boy. This is the start of her downward spiral. Jimmy becomes the object of her obsession. Her fixation takes up all of her energy and she distances herself from her husband and teenage children with whom she feels are not tapping into their own personal talents. Lisa presents Jimmy’s poems to her class, taking credit for them. She exhibits a dangerous lack of boundaries, isolates Jimmy from the other kids and becomes more and more involved in the boy’s life. It may seem like Lisa at first wants to nurture Jimmy’s talent. His poems are organic and beautiful and she is concerned that his current family environment will stifle his burgeoning genius. However, we come to learn that this isn’t about Jimmy. It’s about Lisa.
“If you stay open and stay curious, you can see the world however you want.”
Directed by Sara Colangelo, The Kindergarten Teacher premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and I had plans to see it there but passed because I was worried it might be triggering for me. When Netflix picked it up and I was able to watch it at home and at my own pace. This film put me through the ringer emotionally as I expected it would. It’s beautiful, poetic, disturbing and horrifying all at once. What makes this so unsettling is that for any intellectual, especially one with a creative drive, it speaks to deeply rooted fears of not having the space for creative expression or coming to terms with a lack of real talent. Lisa becomes overwhelmed by these fears. At one point she says, “Talent is so fragile and so rare. And our culture does everything to crush it.”
Some viewers will see the film as a story of a woman going through a mid-life crisis. But it’s so much more than that. The film can be seen as a metaphor for the creative struggle. Jimmy is the embodiment of the genius that Lisa so desperately craves. Her desperation reaches a frightening level. The story masterfully unfolds as Lisa descends deeper into her mania. Gyllenhaal is brilliant in her performance. I love the nuances of her performance. The gentle demeanor of a teacher coupled with the despair and sense of urgency behind her sad eyes. There are some subtleties like Lisa gently bribing Jimmy with a piece of chocolate so she can separate him from the class that add to the emotional horror of the story. The strength of this film is the amazingly told story that’s perfectly paced. And that ending will hit you like a punch in the gut.
The Kindergarten Teacher is available to watch on Netflix.