Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Kindergarten Teacher Is an Electrifying, Empathetic Cringefest

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

At first glance, Lisa and her husband aren’t quite as irretrievably screwed as so many other stagnating Sundance couples before them — they still make eye contact on occasion, nobody’s cheating or drinking too much. But there’s a moment early in the film, after Lisa presents him with the first poem she’s dictated from her preternaturally gifted 5-year-old student Jimmy, where an exchange gives away how distant the two planets they live on are. Jimmy’s poem mentions “a sign from God,” and her husband asks if he’s religious. “It’s a little disturbing for a kid to be talking about God,” he says. He’s not watching Lisa, but we are, and we see Maggie Gyllenhaal’s face lose all trace of softness in a matter of seconds. “Why would you say that?” she asks, in a tone one reserves for racist relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. He tries to walk it back, but it’s too late. He’s outed himself on the wrong side of Lisa’s retroactive war on the commonality of her life.

An appreciation for the sublime is Lisa’s virtue and undoing, and we watch it consume her over the course of The Kindergarten Teacher’s fascinating, excruciating 96 minutes. Written and directed by Sarah Colangelo and based on an Israeli film of the same name, the story of a woman’s manic quest for a vicarious life of art and passion could easily be read as a tale of bored middle-aged hysteria. But Lisa’s drive is more than biological; it’s intellectual and emotional, and that’s what keeps what often risks becoming camp madness in an identifiably human place — almost all the way to the end.

Lisa spends her days pouring Dixie cups of juice and leading sing-alongs at a public school in Staten Island, and her nights attending a university extension poetry course in Manhattan taught by Gael García Bernal. She’s still searching for something, despite her family’s apparent satisfaction with the everyday pleasures of their middle-class existence. Her teenage children are decent and smarter than average, but couldn’t care less about the sublime. When Lisa catches her daughter smoking a joint, she berates her not for doing drugs but for her lack of imagination.

I’m not saying I’d want to hang out with her, but her cultivation of a private dream life is realized with sensitivity by Colangelo and Gyllenhaal, and when her student begins to demonstrate his talent for poetry, that dream life starts to light up. At first, she starts passing off his poems as hers in her class, earning the respect of her classmates and the attention of her teacher, but The Kindergarten Teacher is about more than a mere imposter. Tending to tiny Jimmy like a little flower becomes at once a new opportunity to raise a child, and a possible window into a world of intellectual and artistic stimulation. She becomes obsessed with him, pulling him out of class during nap time so that she can mentor him, even having his unsophisticated nanny (Rosa Salazar) fired so she can take over his after-school time. She scrambles for a pad and paper every time he starts to recite, as if taking dictation from a divine medium. Colangelo watches her unwaveringly, fully aware we’ll think she’s insane, but confident that there’s always another layer of her waiting to be revealed.

Lisa’s relationship with Jimmy feels squirm-inducingly inappropriate because it is in fact an affair, just not the kind we usually see married women having onscreen. It’s an affair of the imagination, her secret lover is her own self-image. Lisa’s trips to Manhattan increasingly start to feel like illicit trysts; she begins to adopt a more flowy, bohemian wardrobe, her oversized sunglasses and impassive stare on the ferry shout “ask me about my exciting secret.” Eventually, it leads her to actions that frankly stretched probability for me; even considering the increasingly jaw-dropping developments that had preceded it. Colangelo has created complicated, wounded woman with many dimensions, but this didn’t feel like one of them.

For me, the film ends when the mysterious subject of Jimmy’s first awe-inspiring poem is revealed, and Lisa’s reaction says everything about what’s really at stake for her. I shrieked with laughter, then felt a pit open up in my stomach. And the pit stayed there until the final shot.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Kindergarten Teacher Is Electrifying