Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindergarten teacher with a loving husband (Michael Chernus) and two teenage kids. She pursues a weekly poetry class but her teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal) is underwhelmed by her work. Bored and restless, a beacon of light comes into Lisa’s life when she discovers that one of her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), is able to write beautiful poetry off the cuff. Convinced that he is a child prodigy, Lisa begins to dedicate her time to nurturing his talent.
In arguably one of the best performances of her career, Gyllenhaal is the key to the emotional, increasingly disturbing nature of ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’. As a kindergarten teacher in the field for twenty years, her gentle, friendly, calming presence in the classroom is immediately admirable. You empathise with her motivation as boredom and frustration with her job, home and family life, and own lack of talent is understandable. There’s nothing criminal about it. But you wonder how far Lisa will go in pushing Jimmy’s talent into the spotlight.
Characters such as Lisa’s husband, doting but naïve, brought to life by ‘OITNB’ star Michael Chernus, and Jimmy’s childminder Becca, played by Rosa Salazar, slip in and out of the narrative. There’s nothing that extraordinary about Gael García Bernal’s performance either. Really all the pressure is on Gyllenhaal to carry the film, or at least on her and Parker Sevak as Jimmy. Sevak, it has to be said, is amazing as well. You totally buy into his innocence and ignorance at the strangeness of his teacher’s behaviour. The kid is only five years old and nothing short of sensational.
Director-writer Sara Colangelo’s build-up of suspense and ambience in ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ is absolute perfection. Lisa keeps pushing her involvement in Jimmy’s life bit by bit, becoming a little more forceful in her demeanour, as well as being inappropriate, with each step. By the time she’s contacting Jimmy directly, you actually start feeling a bit scared with how this could all end up. It’s hard to know whether Lisa is aware of how erratic she’s being and ignoring it, or has lost her mind a little in pursuing her goal. Again, Gyllenhaal is just brilliant at maintaining this sense of ambiguity and obscurity around the character. In spite of her sympathetic circumstances though, you can never truly sympathise with Lisa, because what she is doing is directly impacting a child.
Having already hit Netflix in the US late last year, ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ is definitely one to check out. It’s the most suspenseful movie of the year so far; the steady growth of creepiness can’t be understated. Additionally, it’s a powerhouse performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal.