The Kindergarten Teacher deserves our unreserved embrace. This is a film with the poetry of the human spirit firmly intact. Inside we find Maggie Gyllanhaal (as Lisa) turning in an absolute powerhouse performance. The story is about her young student, a precocious Parker Sevak (as Jimmy), who recites lovely poetry off the top of his head. She’s immediately enraptured in the web of his romantic provocations, conveying an adult mind trapped in a child’s body. Lisa treats him as a prodigy, unraveling a plot where she struggles in straddling the line between being overbearing and supportive of such genuine talent.
The Kindergarten Teacher is Sara Colangelo’s remake of an Israeli film of the same name. The setting’s been Americanized, moved to Staten Island, but the bravery and emotional resonance of the story has stayed the same. The poems, importantly, have not shifted very much, and stay true to their original interpretations. Many of the shots are the same also but the performances vary dramatically.
The film’s victories are in its quiet moments. They’re about Lisa and Jimmy standing in the class. Jimmy paces back and forth. Suddenly, elegant and flowing poetry is aroused from him. She wonders often, is she the source? the Anna that he recites about? A special relationship emerges, a kind of mentor and student relationship beyond that implied in the school. She shows him the items they use everyday and asks, what can find in the everyday that is new? And that’s exactly what the film has done. It is seeped in the everyday, the slice of life, and extracted from it a miraculous juice that is pulpy with literary license.
Lisa is defined by her average life. She has a son and daughter who do not listen very much and are living their own lives, finding their own successes without her. Her daughter accuses her of acting like an ambassador of the UN, always trying to cultivate talent and keeping everyone else’s peace but not her own. She requires Jimmy to feel like the parent responsible for birthing talent of any substantial merit. With this, she begins an extracurricular relationship with her student, interrupting her sex life to talk on the phone after classes and eventually replacing his spacey girl-next door babysitter. Lisa’s husband, a mildly supportive Michael Chernus, is not engaging with her mentally, so family loses out to poetry.
There’s a through line in her personal life. She has been taking poetry classes at the local college. Her own stuff has not been particularly good or impressive, so she begins reading the boy’s work, to the delight of her professor. Although she has gone outside the structure of the assignment by reading his work, it is this creative thinking that sparks a diluted, short-lived romance with her professor, a charming Gael García Bernal.
The more Lisa’s adoration grows, the greater the discomfort becomes. There are points that are so heavy, where it’s clear that she is crossing the lines, for something she believes in with every part of her being. It is among Maggie Gyllanhaal’s best roles. She channels so much truth and intensity that the film exudes pure compassion. The child actor, Parker Sevak, shows as much of a gift for acting as his character does for poetry. Sara Colangelo has directed a Netflix film beyond the usual merits, a translated work of cinematic poetry that has endured its passage wonderfully.