There are many things The Kindergarten Teacher, a 90-minute psychodrama now available to watch online, is not. It is not, for one, in any of the main pandemic-streaming categories – not a stress-processing action flick (Contagion), nor a nostalgic favorite. It’s not one of Netflix’s popular originals; the streamer seems to have botched the film’s US promotion when it was released in October 2018, despite an absolute knockout performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal that inexplicably did not earn any award nominations. But The Kindergarten Teacher, directed by Sara Colangelo and based on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, is worth a watch as an absorbing portrait of one individual’s subtle but desperate slide into obsession, and as an affair story, though not the kind you’d expect. It’s also, to restate what’s worth restating, a masterclass showcase for Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher and married mother of two teenagers in Staten Island who, at the beginning of the film, seems secure but empty. For two decades, she’s poured her energy into fostering creativity in her five-year-old students – a job, the film suggests, that has drained her faith in society to foster talent. And she’s developed a deep faith in the cult of individual creative talent, which she desires but appears to lack; her poems at a continuing education class in Manhattan go unnoticed by her instructor, Simon (Gabriel García Bernal). Everywhere, she sees spurned potential – when she catches her teenage daughter smoking weed, she rips her a new one not for the drugs, but for what she could be doing if she just had the curiosity.
One day after class, she catches one of her students, Jimmy, stringing together words seemingly unprompted, and her malaise coalesces into purpose. She writes his “poem” down with the fervor of a Delphic oracle, a devotee of the boy’s talent that she believes no one else understands. In a brisk yet emotionally packed hour, Lisa becomes obsessed with the boy. She believes she’s discovered a young Mozart of poetry. Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as years of pent-up and unspoken feelings warp good intentions into increasingly bad actions: she drags Jimmy into one-on-one time to hone a craft the child is too young to understand, passes off his poems as her own in class, and wheedles her way into being his after-school caretaker. “It’s OK, kindergarten teachers are allowed to call their students,” she tells Jimmy on the phone, even though of course it’s not.
There’s a sharp ache, like pressing a bruise, in watching Lisa spiral from the familiar experience of fixation into dangerous obsession. Colangelo’s style encourages this voyeurism; her camera lingers over characters’ shoulders or in door frames like a practiced eavesdropper. With hardly any background music, she cedes the soundscape to the shuffling of schoolchildren or the smacking of Gyllenhaal’s lips as she considers her words.
Though the final third takes some far-fetched and excruciating turns that could have derailed the film if not for Gyllenhaal’s grounded performance, Colangelo’s natural style – unsteady camera orbiting Gyllenhaal’s face – smartly keeps the focus on Lisa. Her fixation with Jimmy is, as most obsessions go, much more about Lisa’s own dissatisfaction and insecurities as a “shadow” of a person than any talent Jimmy might have, which Colangelo leaves up to interpretation (is he writing his own poems or hearing them somewhere else? It ultimately doesn’t matter).
It’s worth watching the film for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone – in its best moments (at a poetry reading in Manhattan, when Jimmy reveals his primary inspiration, or bargaining with Jimmy’s father), she’s a live wire, a heady mix of yearning and increasingly untenable self-control. But I found viewing The Kindergarten Teacher during an international shutdown to be enlivening. Lisa is unethical, yes, selfish and absolutely delusional, but also readable – you’re right there with her, understanding without condoning, as she crosses over the line. At a time when most of my human interactions come from FaceTime, to sit with one complicated, well-intentioned but deeply misguided person feels like the opposite of the “low battery” sound my brain makes when I check the news or doom-scroll Twitter. As the stories outside get bigger and bigger – too massive to comprehend, too overwhelming to engage with – sometimes, it feels right to let one understated yet commanding portrait draw you in.
The Kindergarten Teacher is available on Netflix in the US and Amazon Prime in the UK