There’s something fundamentally weird about The Kindergarten Teacher, the sophomore feature by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (Policeman). Its narrative (“plot” would be too strong a word) concerns a 5-year-old boy named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) who composes poetry in his spare time, and the teacher, Nira (Sarit Larry), who recognizes Yoav’s gift—in part because she’s an aspiring poet herself—and seeks to cultivate it. This proves to be difficult, because a lot of modern society perceives poetry as a useless endeavor, at once overly intellectual and insufficiently lucrative. Yoav’s nanny (Ester Rada), who wants to act, uses the boy’s poems as audition pieces, but otherwise seems indifferent, often not bothering to write them down. His restaurateur father (Yehezkel Lazarov), on the other hand, is actively hostile toward any literary ambitions, insisting that no son of his will risk being written off as an egghead freak. Eventually, Nira becomes so distraught at the idea of Yoav’s potential being squandered that she kidnaps him.
That’s an offbeat premise, but it’s not actively weird. What is weird, and ultimately destructive, is the way that The Kindergarten Teacher conceptualizes its child prodigy. Reportedly, Yoav’s poems—which are more thoughtful and evocative than one would expect from a 5-year-old, but not especially good—were actually written by Lapid himself at roughly that age. (Here’s one of them in full, as translated into English: “Hagar is beautiful enough / Enough for me / Rain of gold falls upon her house / It is truly the son of God.”) But there’s zero chance that little Nadav was the verse-spouting automaton presented here. Yoav never demonstrates the slightest interest in language, people, nature, or, indeed, anything at all. Mostly, he just stands around with a blank expression, looking like he’s trying very hard to remember his lines. When his muse strikes, he paces robotically to and fro, announces “I have a poem,” and then spits the whole thing out impromptu. That might work if the film meant to suggest that Yoav is God’s vessel, à la Amadeus’ conception of Mozart, but there’s not so much as a hint of that. The kid really is just a freak of some kind.
It’s up to Nira to fill the void, especially since the title indicates that the film is really about her. Trouble is, she’s defined entirely by her obsession with Yoav, to the point where she’s never shown interacting with any of her other pupils. (She does like to dance, but while her moves are a welcome respite from the overall sluggishness, they don’t connect with anything else or reveal her psyche in any way.) Nobody in The Kindergarten Teacher functions as a credible human being, and the film’s ostensible theme—fear of the artist in a materialistic world—is merely presented in slow motion rather than explored. A scene in which Nira coaches Yoav, out of nowhere, on the distinguishing characteristics of Ashkenazi Jews versus Sephardi Jews seems to imply some sort of nationalistic allegory at work—especially since Policeman was very much a state of the union address—but its contours are indecipherable. What primarily comes across is a film about squandered creativity that itself ignores and trivializes the creative process, pretending that child prodigies produce masterworks unconsciously, like a chicken laying eggs. That’s a poor lesson to impart.