In The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lisa Spinelli, attentive educator by day, wannabe artist by night. She has a nice house in the suburbs, a loving husband (Michael Chernus), two kids in high school (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules) who are thriving despite their teenage ambivalence toward everything, and a generally comfortable life. Yet these domestic trappings can’t tame Lisa’s restless creative spirit, one that has been likely tamped down by patriarchal and societal forces. Given her limited progress in a continuing education poetry class run by a phoning-it-in instructor (Gael García Bernal), it’s admittedly unclear if she had any innate talent that could be squandered at all. But when she discovers that Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a boy in her kindergarten class, might be a poetry prodigy artistically neglected by his family, she takes it upon herself to nurture his genius and goes to problematic lengths to live vicariously through him.
Gyllenhaal and writer-director Sara Colangelo, remaking Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film of the same name, walk a thin line with Lisa’s characterization, ensuring that her behavior scans as both understandable and unsettling. Shining as a woman who projects calm but suppresses disappointment at all times, Gyllenhaal carries The Kindergarten Teacher, a star vehicle that doesn’t announce itself as such. In fact, her performance goes a long way to keeping the film on stable ground. Meanwhile, Colangelo crafts a professional and personal life for her protagonist that’s vaguely unsatisfying—Lisa’s house feels drably claustrophobic despite the veneer of normalcy, and her kindergarten class mostly operates on unconscious routine—which subtly justifies her newfound obsession. The Kindergarten Teacher admirably expresses a conflicted perspective on Lisa, sympathetic toward her unfulfilled interior life but distrustful of how that manifests itself. Her intentions with Jimmy are superficially noble, but when she’s waking him up from nap time for private poetry conferences in the bathroom, all virtue becomes suspect.
Ironically, The Kindergarten Teacher’s biggest liability turns out to be how it hamstrings Gyllenhaal’s performance to the demands of the script. Her character eventually takes the expected turn toward the unhinged, but even before the final incident, Colangelo forces Lisa into emotional territory that either doesn’t feel believable—considering the character’s obvious intelligence—or goes conveniently unnoticed by every other adult. (It takes a leap of faith to accept that, in the age of helicopter parenting, Lisa’s teaching assistant doesn’t so much as mention her partner’s questionable actions with a child to literally anyone.)
Yet even if you accept the narrative’s machinations, the film’s dramatic tension becomes an afterthought when Lisa’s instability and her relationship with Jimmy take over the second half. Colangelo’s film compels when Lisa’s behavior teeters on the edge of honorable and unethical, but when she’s whisking a child to New York for a poetry reading against his parent’s wishes, the intent question becomes a moot point and Lisa’s psychology ultimately flattens. Furthermore, Colangelo introducing and then abandoning the question of whether it’s even practical to cultivate Jimmy’s talent at all feels like a missed opportunity. The Kindergarten Teacher broaches the most interesting ground whenever it contrasts Lisa’s concern for Jimmy’s creativity with every other adult’s shrugging, “gee whiz, that’s cool” attitude about it.
Still, the thriller-esque ending, while obviously telegraphed, remains potent, if only because of Gyllenhaal’s facility acting opposite children. Sevak plays Jimmy like a cipher, perfect as a foil for a character’s projections, and Gyllenhaal’s sweetness toward the kid never once feels insincere even when it curdles into something dangerous. She always plays “the teacher” even when she abdicates any and all professional responsibility. That one-sided relationship pays dividends in the film’s final intense moments, even if they shamelessly mine kid-in-peril sympathy from the audience. It’s just a shame that the edge-of-your-seat suspense negates The Kindergarten Teacher’s preceding psychological power.