The Kindergarten Teacher is not the film I expected it to be when it started, and it’s not the film I expected it to be 30 minutes in, 45 minutes in or even 15 minutes before the end of it’s brisk 97 minutes. The film subverts expectations at all times, making Sara Colangelo’s second feature a big step forward after her tepid first feature, Little Accidents. Colangelo drops the audience into the monotony of the wonderfully named Lisa Spinelli’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) life as a, you guessed it, kindergarten teacher. She is clearly a devoted and empathetic educator, but something is missing.
To try and find the spark it becomes clear she has always longed, Lisa attends poetry classes led by the charmingly oily Simon (Gael García Bernal). Her poetry sounds lovely, but its rote leaving Simon uninspired by her writing. This changes when one afternoon a boy in her class, Jimmy (Parker Servak) spouts a poem seemingly possessed, and Lisa performs it at her next class. Simon is energised and Lisa switches from existential crisis to pure obsession, with her only goal to record Jimmy’s poems and read them out at class every week. Lisa gets the nice but uninterested babysitter to write down Jimmy’s poems, but after she doesn’t hear one for a couple of days, she gives Jimmy her number and instructs him to call her whenever a poem comes to his mind.
It is moments like these where the film becomes uncomfortable. Lisa’s motives are unclear and her relationship with Jimmy is unsettling and in line with grooming. This uneasy relationship and Lisa’s increasingly unhinged obsession propels the rest of the film with it crossing genres from drama to thriller to everything in between. Lisa’s home life contributes to her want for creativity. Her children don’t read, and her son is planning on becoming a marine, leading Lisa to caustically reply, that he shouldn’t kid himself that he’d be doing anything other than “fight for oil in the desert”. Her relationship with her uninterested kids fractures as the film progresses leading her husband, Grant (Michael Chernus) to ask if she is proud of them. Forget the fact they both excel academically and socially, Lisa is disappointed in them because they don’t have the desire for creative stardom. In Lisa’s mind, Jimmy can fill that void and bring her the artistic success her soul craves. This craving and the lengths Lisa will go to becomes more unhinged as the film progresses leading to a sickeningly tense last 25 minutes.
The genre hopping wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the performances of Gyllenhaal and Servak. The former gives the best performance of her already incredible career and Servaks is so believable as the timid Jimmy it’s hard to believe he’s only 5. Shot on a tiny budget with a frail 22 day shoot, The Kindergarten Teacher is a small gem, featuring the two best performances you will see this year.