Movies 16 October 2018 | 18:00

LFF review: ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ is Maggie Gyllenhaal's best work

16 October 2018 18:00

Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher is without doubt Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film. The actor delivers one of the very best performances of her career as Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island-based kindergarten teacher who harbours unfulfilled artistic aspirations and a deep yearning for a more culturally enriched existence.

The story, which was scripted by Colangelo but based on a previous screenplay by Nadav Lapid, is a distinctive take on mid-life disillusionment. Lisa’s been teaching kindergarten for 20 years, she has two kids of her own – both teenagers (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules) who spend their days glued to their phones – with whom she lives, along with her husband Grant (Michael Chernus), in a comfortable suburban home; porch out front, pool out back. Hers is clearly a good life, but there’s a hollowness at its core, take the wholesome chickpea and vegetable heavy meals she cooks for herself and her husband, for example, which they then eat together in near silence while the kids share take-out pizza in the backyard. She wants her children to show more interest in life – her longing for a world in which there’s more ‘curiosity’ is a refrain that runs through the film. She tries to encourage her daughter to use her dad’s old camera to take some pictures of the neighbourhood. ‘You used to like photography,’ Lisa reminds her. ‘I post pictures on Instagram,’ her daughter replies.

For her part, Lisa’s trying to bring a little culture into her own life by attending a weekly poetry workshop – cue some excruciating scenes in which the professor (an eager, puppy-like Gael García Bernal) tries to encourage his students’ fumbled attempts at lyricism. Hence, when she discovers that one of her kindergarteners, Jimmy (Parker Sevak with a wide-eyed distractedness that completely convinces), suddenly starts reciting unprompted poetry of his own, Lisa takes it on herself to nurture his talent. As her increasingly earnest insistences that Jimmy’s the next Mozart and should be treated accordingly fall on what she thinks of as deaf ears, Lisa becomes desperate, taking matters into her own hands.

Gyllenhaal brings just the right level of intensity to the role. The single-mindedness of her self-belief is scary, but she never tips over into something more sociopathic. Despite years of teaching, we see a woman who still takes her job seriously. She’s gentle and attentive with her students, lovingly preparing them a classroom filled with delights. It’s as if she’s been waiting for Jimmy for her whole career, possibly even her entire life. But this, of course, is the problem. She might think she has his best interests at heart – and she does, to a certain degree – but everything that she’s doing is also very much in the service of her own needs. The scenes where this desire bubbles up to the surface are equally heart-breaking and troubling, especially as she breaches the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship, demanding emotional and intellectual intimacy from him that he’s ill-prepared to provide. For someone who’s clearly so brilliant at looking after children and giving them what they need to blossom, her inability to recognise that Jimmy is still just a little boy is all the more shocking. Lisa’s greatest fear is that Jimmy’s poems won’t be heard, but she’s so busy listening to them, she can’t hear anything else.

For a film that begins as such a slow burner, the conclusion feels a little rushed and unresolved, though its child-like simplicity is not without a certain freshness. It’s saying something interesting about liberal middle-class obsession with culture and its consumption, but the message comes across as slightly muddled. Without such a career-defining performance from Gyllenhaal, it could well have floundered, but with her in command it’s a highlight of the festival.