The Kindergarten Teacher could easily have been a comedy — a broad satire, maybe — but Israeli director Nadav Lapid has chosen to make it a surreal drama. It’s a brave decision, given the setup: Nira (Sarit Larry), an aspiring poet and kindergarten teacher, discovers that one of her students, a 5-year-old named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), enters weird trances and creates beautiful poetry on the spot. Convinced that she’s discovered a prodigy, Nira tries to find a way to promote Yoav’s talent — appealing to his restaurateur father, his journalist uncle, and others — but at every turn is met by a world consumed with the vulgar and mundane. Nira recalls the young Mozart, writing symphonies and concertos while being fostered by kings. But Yoav, she says, “is a poet in an era that hates poetry.”
That’s a loaded concept, and it would be easy to see in The Kindergarten Teacher an allegory for The Way We Live Now. Truth be told, the allegory is there, but Lapid goes beyond that. Nira isn’t a lone, pure, inspired soul. In fact, she lies, manipulates, and backstabs to get herself closer to Yoav. Something within pulls her to this boy. She doesn’t know what will happen to his voice and his talent as the years progress and as puberty and adulthood take over. Will he be beaten down by the inevitable march of reality? We suspect that Nira, a fairly young woman with two grown kids and a mildly pathetic, middle-aged husband, has been living someone else’s life for a long, long time.
This all sounds very portentous and grim, but Lapid has found a fascinating style with which to present this off-kilter story. He keeps the camera uncomfortably close, though not in that handheld, herky-jerky way that some filmmakers use to denote “immediacy.” No, the camera here is purposeful, controlled — and unnaturally, almost violatingly close to people’s faces, their shoulders, their legs. In the opening scene, Nira’s husband actually bumps the supposedly not-there lens, seemingly accidentally. In scenes at the playground, Lapid gets down near the ground and dizzyingly follows the kids around, low, fast, and close. Occasionally, faces, or parts of faces, go out of focus. That’s not so much an attempt to break the fourth wall as it is an attempt to show us this world anew, to unsettle us into attentiveness.
It’s also, frankly, very exciting. The Kindergarten Teacher is far from a perfect movie — there’s an archness and deliberateness to the dialogue that doesn’t always do justice to the complicated emotions the film evokes. If you read this instead of seeing it, or saw it performed on a stage, everything would feel a little too on-the-nose. But Lapid’s thrilling use of the camera, the way his unbalanced frame and his imaginative staging work with the precision of his story, results in something new and genuinely unnerving.