The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)
One of the holy grails of film is openness to varied interpretation. Despite its implied narrative unity, The Kindergarten Teacher (2017)is as open-ended as they come. What appears to be a predictable story of a bored 40-something teacher looking for self-actualisation slowly takes on dark themes of psycho-sexual obsession and acts of criminality.
Deep in a marital and career rut, kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) craves more than life has offered. Her teenage kids prefer social media than listening to her admonishments and her tolerant husband Grant (Michael Chernus) cannot understand why she is so restless. To ease her sexual and career frustration, Lisa attends an evening poetry class to immerse herself in literary beauty, hoping to become a writer despite a paucity of talent.
Her dreams are answered in the strangest of ways. One day in kindergarten, she overhears five-year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) spontaneously create a short poem. To Lisa, this is an epiphany: if she cannot find great writing within, then her gift is to recognise such prodigious talent. She plagiarises Jimmy’s poem and her evening class and teacher are impressed. Believing that only she can save Jimmy’s talent from obscurity, she becomes obsessed with the boy and ingratiates herself into his broken family life.
This storyline description does not come close to capturing how disturbing Lisa’s behaviour becomes. Today’s global awareness of child abuse has rewritten the rules of how an adult can relate to a child. At first imperceptibly then manifestly obvious, Lisa bends then breaks all the rules for child contact. Her physical touch, excessive attention, and taking him where others cannot see, gradually dial-ups audience levels of discomfort. When Jimmy’s father withdraws him from the kindergarten because of Lisa’s behaviour, her complete breakdown and subsequent responses make it impossible to predict where her obsession might lead.
There are many horror and thriller films that pale alongside The Kindergarten Teacher: it is a superb example of how less can be more in filmmaking. Reliance on ambiguity and audience imagination creates a tense psycho-drama on the nature of psychotic obsession. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an extraordinary yet understated performance; she dominates every scene and exudes normality with just a hint of madness. Young Parker Sevak is amazing in his innocence and bewilderment over the fuss he seems to cause. Tight direction keeps the narrative moving forward with well-measured escalating tension until we cannot even guess what will happen next in this low-key but highly disturbing film.
2018 Sydney Film Festival
Director: Sara Colangelo
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal , Parker Sevak, Michael Chernus