The Kindergarten Teacher, a quiet little gem of melancholy and longing, is about a world that crushes the spirit of creativity, the spark of enlightenment, the sowing of that rarest of virtues in a post-modern world: intellectualism. It’s also about a woman with plenty of curiosity, but lacking in her own creativity, and through her discovery of a “young Mozart” in her kindergarten class is desperate to live vicariously, getting by on the intellectual achievements of five year-old Jimmy.
Lisa Spinelli is brave for her steadfast refusal to let a real artist in the making go unnoticed, for her boisterous support of his talents in the face of so many people in his life pulling him down to their level. There is the boy’s babysitter, a dumbfounded millennial with zero investment. There is the boy’s uncle, a paragon of ineffectual familial ties. And there is the boy’s father, a money-driven club owner with no desire to see his son fail at a future rat race. So there is plenty of cause for righteous concern on Lisa’s part, and yet, she is also deeply insecure and possibly narcissistic, full of regret and longing for a life that could have been. Or so she believes. She believes she had talent, talent that was wasted on the typical mundanities of ordinary life, and now is gone, lost to the winds of change, leaving her an appreciator of art but no artist at all. Worst of all, her wishes for this young boy turn into obsessions as she traipses from merely caring for him in the classroom to inserting herself outside of it, crossing one line and then another. She sees in the boy an opportunity to right the wrongs of her educational past, be it her own life or the lives of her children. She keeps pushing and pushing Jimmy, into exploring his gift for poetry, into seeing the world around him from a different vantage, from the top of a window to the bottom floor. She is intent on expanding his schooling beyond finger-painting and letter-learning.
Maggie Gyllenhaal balances the shades of grey, the breathless pursuit of that noblest of goals, as well as the unfair disappointment and occasional condescension with which Lisa regards her family and those closest to her. As a progressive it might be tempting to champion her as she scolds her son for hoping to “fight for oil overseas,” and as a progressive it might be tempting to degrade her for killing the ganja vibe at her daughter’s pool party, her inability to read the room or to respect her older kid’s valid choices. As a conservative you might hate her guts, her predisposition for pretension or her preoccupation with one boy over all of the other children in her class. Hell, that might apply to all of us. Gyllenhaal imbues Lisa with a calm and determined being, a resolve of inspiration that’s not exactly problematic until the moment she’s suddenly lying to the boy’s father. Parker Sevak is perfect as young Jimmy, able to convey a spark of something without coming across as cloyingly precocious. He is five years-old after all. Michael Chernus and Gael Garcia Bernal portray dueling objects of her leftover affections, her second husband and a dreamy poetry professor with whom she briefly engages. They’re all emotional window dressing compared to Jimmy, a fascination that eventually, inevitably leads her astray. Here and there, there is a troubling slightness to the film, a swift feeling that one thing or another may be incomplete, much like Lisa’s own life.
Relative newcomer Sara Colangelo writes and directs with a delicate hand, allowing the actors their space to move, sit, or relish in silence. Colangelo does not judge nor does she pontificate. With Kindergarten Teacher, she simply presents and observes the derangement of regret, of one woman’s quiet desperation in a culture that makes not giving a shit or thinking about shit so easy.