Maggie Gyllenhaal Teeters at Edge of Art and Madness as ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ (Exclusive Video)

Sundance 2018: Obsession grips instructor of gifted five-year-old poet

When women breach social stereotypes and act unpredictably, it is often called madness.

In “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the title character, a disturbing alternative is offered: Perhaps it is just Art.

The film in dramatic competition at Sundance, written and directed by Sara Colangelo, stars Gyllenhaal as Lisa, a fortysomething teacher who discovers that one of her 5-year-old charges is a budding, genius poet.

Married on Long Island with two teenage kids who have little to do with her, Lisa is nothing if not a typical working mom. But she believes there is more to her.

A struggling poet herself, Lisa finds herself drawn to tiny Jimmy with his fringed brown eyes who seems to birth entire verses at once with no effort — profound words about love, nature, wild beasts and God.

Slowly Lisa is sucked into an obsession with nurturing a genius, especially since Jimmy’s nightclub-owning father seems uninterested in his son’s talent. She finds herself gradually crossing lines and breaking boundaries — starting with substituting Jimmy’s work for her own in a poetry class she’s taking at night, to sleeping with the instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal) to a final stage of no return.

Is it madness? Or is it an artist channeling her long-suppressed need for expression, any kind of expression?

Gyllenhaal offers a beautifully nuanced performance full of intelligence and desperation. She taps into something deep about the unmet emotional needs of a woman whose life is spent putting forth energy toward others.

Her performance is met note for note by 5-year-old Parker Sevak, who is entirely convincing as a wise little boy who is still, at base, a little boy.

“As women we don’t see many movies out there that express our experience,” said Gyllenhaal at the premiere screening at Park City, Utah on Friday. “When I saw an opportunity to express everything, it was so unique.”

Director Colangelo (“Little Accidents”) adapted the story from an Israeli film, and the project features a group of all-women producers, including Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren.

Colangelo said after the screening: “Lisa is someone getting trampled and not being listened to,” which leads her ultimately to cross “sacred boundaries.” The story, she said, “floats in allegory as well. She is not a woman going mad but a woman spiraling out of control because she’s not being fed.”

The film is for sale and being represented by Endeavor Content.

In the video above, watch Gyllenhaal and Colangelo discuss the #MeToo movement and the actress’ unique role nurturing a child prodigy.