Maggie Gyllenhaal never fails to impress. Academy Award-nominated, with a string of consistent critical hits under her belt (Secretary, The Dark Knight, Away We Go, Crazy Heart, Frank), The Kindergarten Teacher is set to be added to the long list.
Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has a comfortable, easy life. Teaching kindergarten, apparently happily married (to Orange is the New Black‘s Michael Chernus), living in the New York suburbs – Lisa is lucky, she knows that. But she’s bored. Her teenage children avoid spending time with her; she’s failing her poetry class; she wants more from life.
‘More from life’ comes in the form of Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a young boy in her class. One afternoon, while waiting for his pick-up, Lisa overhears Jimmy recite a poem he’s conjured. Lisa grabs a pen, jotting down his words in wonder. Where did he learn this? Are they his own pieces? Turns out, yes, and he has more to offer. But as Lisa starts to claim Jimmy’s work as her own to impresses her teacher (Gael García Bernal) – and as she becomes steadily more obsessed with Jimmy, her little Mozart – Lisa speeds closer towards the edge: of her student-teacher relationship, of her marriage, of her sanity.
Running through The Kindergarten Teacher is a true feeling of melancholy. It’s reflected in everything – the slow, steady pacing, the cinematography’s strong sense of realism, the interactions between our characters. As expected, Gyllenhaal is stunning, a woman gripped in an almost-middle-life crisis, daring to cross boundaries to feel a little risk. However, quite unexpectedly, the narrative takes a surprising turn, transforming itself into a climatic thriller, and Maggie doesn’t falter once. You can see the tension on her face, losing a grip on the reality she once knew so well, was so bored of. Lisa will risk anything to spend an extra few minutes with Jimmy, no matter what’s at stake.
The interactions between our characters convey the biggest strains in Lisa’s life. Her time spent with Chernus’ Grant feel like a show, a fake, an act. With Simon (Bernal), she’s shy, embarrassed, nearly needy. With her children she’s on edge, quietly angry, disappointed in their carefree attitudes (or jealous that they can be so carefree). Gyllenhaal, along with the rest of the cast, commit to every line and action. The scenes shot in her classroom, especially those with Jimmy, feel like a slow, graceful dance across the screen, contrasted with the stilted, bitter moments at home with her family, a feeling on resentment tainting the dialogue.
At times incredibly uncomfortable, but we can’t help but to keep watching. We know this won’t end well, but we’re happy to observe, to bear witness to one of society’s biggest unspoken taboos – a female teacher pursuing her male student. And, much like Lisa’s risk-taking, The Kindergarten Teacher feels like a huge risk for writer/director Sara Colangelo. Does it pay off? Certainly.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a triumph of tense and intense narrative, starring one of Hollywood’s best. Beautifully scripted, intelligently written, slowly ramping up the heat underneath Maggie’s Lisa, this is a brilliant display of talent all-round.