There’s nothing like the classic mid-life crisis; people get to a period in their lives where they start to reflect on and scrutinize all the choices they have made that ultimately led them to their present position in life. For for a lot of, and dare I say most people, it can be a startling thing. Maybe they focused too much on their careers or family-life and missed out on the fun that they could have had when they were younger. Or, they could be on the opposite end of the spectrum and they had too much fun and never really applied themselves, so they fell short of their aspirations.
The Kindergarten Teacher focuses on a character somewhere perhaps in the middle of those two contrasts. Naturally, she latches on to a five-year old she feels is a growing prodigy and intends to live vicariously through him and help cultivate his talents, even if it means overstepping every conceivable boundary and being painfully awkward in the process.
Directed by Sara Colangelo, this film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Mrs. Lisa Spinelli, the teacher who takes her love of developing young minds too far. Gyllenhaal is brilliant, as she always seems to be. Her gradual transition from nurturing, to obsessive over the talents of her young student plays out excruciatingly through the film, as she crosses line after line until returning to normalcy becomes impossible. She seems bored with all aspects of her life, and is desperate to find some artistic presence either within herself or her teenage children who don’t share her plight. You witness the subtle breaking points as Lisa’s own poetry is panned in her adult continuation class taught by Simon (Gael García Bernal), only to see Simon praise the work of her student, Jimmy (Parker Sevak). And, most painfully, we see her seek validation from Jimmy himself by reading one of her own poems to him. Imagine being wounded by a lack of an emotional response from a 5 year old child. It really is heartbreaking to watch Lisa sink further into her disillusioned state.
Watching in horror, you see Lisa’s behavior grow from questionable to disturbing as she becomes obsessed solely with ensuring that all of Jimmy’s poetry is captured, and that he is encouraged to discover new perspectives for his creativity. His uncanny ability to take inspiration and string together a profound poem full of symbolism and deeper meaning is absolutely astounding but as an observer you cringe each time Lisa forces Jimmy into an uncomfortable situation or lies to those around him in order to be more in control of his creativity.
It is clear that, like most children, Jimmy is aware of when things are out of the ordinary even though to a degree he also wants to go along with his teacher and is torn between being a normal child playing sports with his friends and allowing Lisa to record his poetry. This struggle all leads up to a dramatic conclusion and features Colangelo getting one heck of a performance from Gyllenhaal as she comes to a painful realization while still sternly trying to help Jimmy understand how rare a gift he has, and how the world we live in will slowly chip away at it.
The final moments of this film really stick with you long after its conclusion, and it is easy to find yourself reflecting on your own circumstances and aspirations. Missing out on streaming this film from Netflix is not a decision that you have to live with.
Overall rating: 7.5 out of 10
The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.