Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a good person. She’s a loving mother, a caring wife, and, as the titular educator in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a dedicated professional. She has endless patience for her students, even as she fills their juice cups up for the thousandth time.
Who could fill a juice cup a thousand times, without going a little crazy? Watch her teenage children (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules) grow up and move on, without her heart breaking? Or look at her worn-out spouse (Michael Chernus,”Orange Is the New Black”) and her worn-in Staten Island home, and not wish for more?
It’s clear early on in Sara Colangelo’s intently understated drama (premiering October 12 in limited release and on Netflix) that Lisa wants more. And all that dissatisfaction, that feeling that life is half over and she’s barely accomplished anything? It’s eating her away.
She tries to find an outlet in a continuing-ed poetry class, but her teacher (a perfectly-pitched Gael García Bernal) is notably unimpressed. She truly loves art, but doesn’t seem able to produce it herself. It’s a strange and demoralizing dilemma.
Until, one day, one of her students (excellent and adorable newcomer Parker Sevak) makes up a poem. And it’s good — better than hers. Lisa is awed by Jimmy’s natural talent, and becomes convinced that he’s a prodigy. She tracks down his father (Ajay Naidu), and passionately compares Jimmy to Mozart. But his dad, like the other adults she consults, thinks a five-year-old should be free to play, not pushed to write poetry with his teacher.
So Lisa determines, with increasing urgency, to save Jimmy from the philistines. She begins waking him up at naptime, and calling him at home, to teach him how to “see” better. She bribes him with candy, so he’ll go study with her alone. And all the time, we’re worried about what line she’ll cross next.
As both writer and director, Colangelo — adapting a 2014 Israeli film of the same name — knows that we’re watching with particular expectations. There’s a built-in tension to our assumptions, but Lisa is not the predator we expect her to be, nor the sort of monster with whom we’re most familiar.
Looked at from one angle, in fact, most of the movie could be considered entirely sympathetic to Lisa’s perspective. But then the camera lingers just a little too long on her inscrutable expression. Occasionally, the plaintive piano-and-strings score (by Asher Goldschmidt, “White God”) feels just a bit too ominous. And is her habit of touching everyone an expression of her compassion? Or her needs?
Though Gyllenhaal (who’s also a producer) is all-in on this complex character study, it’s in an admirably subtle way. She never once overplays Lisa’s precarious emotional state, choosing instead to portray a rather ordinary woman doing some rather extraordinary things. It’s an intriguing approach, and one that carries us far.
However, her spare turn and the film’s deliberately unhurried pacing do require the support of an especially solid script. This one, unfortunately, seems like it’s missing a few pages. When the inevitable finale arrives, it feels false: The Lisa we’ve come to know so intimately would never make the most extreme choices the plot requires of her.
That letdown, though, is a reflection on the strong and honest work to come before it. Anyone with some patience and a penchant for thoughtful ambiguity will find more than enough rewards here, from Gyllenhaal’s intelligent performance to Colangelo’s empathetic insight. True, it’s not always an easy movie to sit through. But the impact of Lisa’s plight lingers long after her fate’s been sealed.