“Can I read you one of my poems?” Lisa asks Jimmy in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” which seems like an innocent enough question until you realize Jimmy is six and Lisa is his teacher, using the opportunity of mending his scraped knee to have a captive audience. At the point that she asks this, she’s seized numerous occasions to bend his ear, prodding him during naptime or using a timeout during recess to have a heart to heart. While she feels she’s above showing kids how to form letters and dabble with paint that gets more on their hands than the canvas, she believes she’s found a kindred spirit in Jimmy, who shows a prodigious talent for poetry, plucking words from the air and arranging them in ways, much to her frustration, that she never could, as the poetry class she makes time for in the evenings will affirm time and again when asked for their opinion.
Based on Nadav Lapid’s Israeli film of the same name, “The Kindergarten Teacher” would seem to side with the notion that those who can’t do, teach, and although writer/director Sara Colangelo only hints at the life of disappointment that Mrs. Lisa Spinelli (a ferocious Maggie Gyllenhaal) experienced before taking up a career in education, you understand it drives her to take an abnormal interest in Jimmy (Parker Sevak) when she finds him pacing around her classroom muttering to himself, seemingly in verse. A woman who flaunts her knowledge by always using a $5 word when a simpler one would work, Lisa can take pride in recognizing what others can’t in the boy, but while she aggressively attempts to cultivate his gifts, writing down his words whenever she notices he’s inspired and telling him how she believes others, like his nanny (Rosa Salazar) are holding him back by talking down to him with cutesy kid nicknames, she turns a blind eye to whether he’s interested or not.
This leads to even greater problems than Lisa has already as “The Kindergarten Teacher” wears on, a devilish, delicious character study that transcends its source material by changing its perspective from the boy genius who only has a slight idea of what he’s capable of to the teacher whose disillusionment with being a woman of a certain age, locked into a career and family life she never fully wanted, strips away any rational thinking when it comes to somehow contributing to the art she values above all else. Offering Gyllenhaal a role as juicy as her finest hours in films such as “Sherrybaby” and “Secretary” – and seeing her run away with it – Colangelo weaponizes Lisa’s words to do the exposition work that would usually weigh a film like this down by expressing her desperation in her hopes for Jimmy, delivering a script that’s sharp as a tack not only in its precision but cutting enough in its intelligence about how Lisa carries herself to draw blood. Brilliant work by costume designer Vanessa Porter, who gives Lisa a regality through slinky, shabby chic dresses and necklaces that she knows are wasted on a schoolyard, and a beautiful, unsettling classical score from Asher Goldschmidt, add to a film that’s elegance brings out just how out of line its main character has gotten. For a story where so much can feel so wrong, “The Kindergarten Teacher” gets every beat oh so right.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” will show at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st at the Egyptian Theater at 8:30 a.m., January 25th at the Eccles at 3:30 p.m. and January 27th at Redstone Cinema at 4 p.m.