Lisa is having a mid-life crisis. No, Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is having an existential mother fucking emergency. She’s been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years and she’s tired of teaching a curriculum she doesn’t believe in. She feels invisible at home, a mother to grown kids who don’t need her anymore, a wife to a man she doesn’t feel connected to. A continuing education class in poetry only highlights her unrealized potential and stifled creativity.
So Lisa is ripe for a prodigy, and what do you know, she “discovers” one right in her own classroom. Five (and a half) year old and full-time cutie-patootie Jimmy (Parker Sevak) composes poetry that is beautiful and eloquent beyond his years. Lisa feels an addictive high when she recites it as her own in poetry class, receiving praise by peers and teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) alike. But mostly she just becomes obsessed with this kid, believing she’s the only one who can nurture his talent. Her behaviour becomes increasingly troublesome, though even on the mild end of the spectrum (depriving him of naps, luring him into bathrooms, alone, with candy bribes), I was uncomfortable.
Lisa is a complex character. You’re picking up on that, right? She legitimately believes she’s got a Mozart-level genius on her hands, and also that our current culture crushes creativity. And she’s not wrong, definitely not about one of those things, and maybe not about both. But she believes that gives her the right to overstep her bounds in some pretty major, pretty outrageous ways.
Maggie Gylleenhaal deserves every good word you have to say about her performance. It’s melancholy, human, and desperate. There’s something universal about a woman’s unsatisfied needs. But you don’t quite know where or how far Lisa will take this – it’s just slightly unhinged, which keeps you riveted despite the fact that the film sometimes feels like it’s not quite sure what it should be.
Director Sara Colangelo explores the many facets of her protagonist even when motivations are muddled and compromised. There’s almost a dark comedy running through the veins of this movie, throbbing and daring in a way that’s surprising given it takes place in a kindergarten class. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll sympathize, you’ll condemn, but you won’t look away, even when it stumbles, even if it can’t commit. The Kindergarten Teacher offers a confident performance and a fascinating character study.
Catch The Kindergarten Teacher on Netflix October 12.