written and directed by SARA COLANGELO
Rated R | 96 MIN
When you dig deep down into a person, pushing past the façade they put on, the things they brush off, and the insecurities they have come to terms with, you will find something surprising: a small nugget of fear. That fear is being unnoticed, of drifting through life without some semblance of purpose or recognition. I struggle with that fear every day; I think all artists, especially those who still adhere to the label "aspiring", struggle with that notion.
That's part of what makes The Kindergarten Teacher so compelling. While we can see Lisa's obsession with her student, Jimmy, is clearly unhealthy and dangerous, we can understand that her fears, her insecurities, and her loneliness is what is driving her actions.
The Kindergarten Teacher follows Lisa, a teacher who is a struggling poet. One day, she discovers that a student of hers, Jimmy, is child prodigy - his poems are full of depth and power. She decides to take him under her wing, convinced she is helping him even as her actions become increasingly problematic.
The depth of the writing, and Gyllenhaal’s performance, gives humanity to someone we likely wouldn't afford it to if we saw this case on the news. It brings complexity and connection to a person we would likely never associate with (after learning what they have done). Yet, that is exactly what Sara Colangelo's masterful film does.
To be clear, Lisa is never a protagonist. Not in the strict sense of the term. Her actions clearly indicate that she is, at best, an anti-hero, driven by personal insecurities and profound sadness. That is another onionskin that helps make her character more complex and more human.
I am reminded of another film (another Netflix Original, oddly enough) called Tallulah, starring Ellen Page and directed by Sian Heder. Again, someone we generally would not afford sympathy to is shown in a humanistic light. That can confuse us as an audience.
Yet, that's also the truest thing about these films. The Kindergarten Teacher is a fictional story, but the observations it makes about Lisa and her daily struggles are real. That helps elevate the story above melodrama and into something more sticky, more bold, and more complex.
None of this would be possible without Maggie Gyllenhaal's powerhouse performance. It's quiet and thoughtful, yet when we get those long takes we can see emotions brewing behind her eyes -- we can see the storm of frustration, sadness, anger, and loneliness clashing like a violent ocean in her irises.
Films like The Kindergarten Teacher are why I still, despite all of the flops, defend the Netflix Original. Netflix is often criticized for giving too much leniency to their filmmakers (I've even accused them of that for certain projects). Giving Sara Sara Colangelo sole control over the project, in terms of writing and direction, was the smartest decision they could make. This is only her second feature, and yet she writes and directs with such a precise command of film language and character insight, it looks as if she has been doing this for decades.
The Kindergarten Teacher is like a ticking time-bomb of a film. It sits and it waits, ticking away, ramping up pressure, raising the stakes, chipping deeper into our souls as it peels the layers away from Lisa and her personality, until it finally gives us the pulse-pounding, emotional ending we have been waiting for. That is exactly what I want from this kind of character study.