Maggie Gyllenhaal has been steadily churning out finely wrought character pieces for two decades. The Kindergarten Teacher, out this week from Netflix, is another in the long, masterful line. In The Kindergarten Teacher, Gyllenhaal teams up with director Sara Colangelo and an all-female producing team to star as Lisa Spinelli, a veteran teacher who becomes obsessed with fostering the nascent poetic talents of sweet, doe-eyed Jimmy (Parker Sevak), one of her young students, and protecting that talent from what she sees as a disinterested world. It’s a disturbing film to watch, most especially and effectively because Colangelo sticks very close to Lisa. The camera rarely looks away from Lisa, even and especially in her most intimate and desperate moments, and therefore the viewer can’t either.
Per the usual, Gyllenhaal nails it with her complex performance. (For another Netflix example, check out 2014 British political thriller The Honourable Women.) So much of Lisa’s unraveling happens just beneath the surface. From the outside, Lisa is a happy, healthy, fulfilled woman. She is married with two teenaged children and has dozens of pupils and a co-teacher at work to engage with, but she is terribly isolated. It’s in the unsettling way she holds other’s gazes just a little too long, performs routine tasks around her classroom with joyless efficiency, or clutches onto people just a little too tightly.
Lisa does have one outlet though. By living and working in Staten Island, Lisa takes the ferry to the artistic oasis of Manhattan to attend a continuing education poetry class led by Gael Garcia Bernal’s Simon. Unfulfilled as a wife, mother, and teacher, this is where Lisa’s true aspirations lie. When she begins to pass off young Jimmy’s poetry as her own, Simon takes notice, giving Lisa the kind of artistic recognition she so desperately wants.
As the film progresses, Lisa begins to cross boundary after boundary in her relationship with Jimmy in her pursuit to “protect” his talent from what she rightly sees as a culture largely disinterested in poetry. Lisa gives the five-and-half-year-old her cell phone number and encourages him to call her whenever he has a poem, but Lisa begins to call Jimmy when she herself is feeling lonely or sad or not seen. Much of the film’s tension exists in these moments, in the space between what Lisa is doing and what the viewer thinks is appropriate. The Kindergarten Teacher encourages the audience to ask him or herself: At what point does Lisa go too far? And is Lisa acting from a place of good intentions or merely selfish desires?
That last question may be the most emotionally rich, especially as the answer changes over the course of the film. At first, Lisa seems to genuinely want the best for Jimmy. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it isn’t Jimmy’s well-being Lisa is prioritizing; it is the preservation of his poetry. Lisa is only interested in details about Jimmy’s complicated life in the context of his art. In the same way that Lisa feels unseen in her identity as artist, Lisa ignores so many of the identities and experiences that make Jimmy who he is. She mocks Jimmy’s part-time nanny (played by Rosa Salazar) for baby-ing Jimmy, ignoring the fact that Jimmy is, in fact, a little kid.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a fascinating, nuanced character exploration, especially when looking at it through a gendered lens. Lisa has played by all of the “rules” when it comes to her white, middle class identity. She is married with two kids, a house in the suburbs, and she is great at her job. Even when she is losing it, she never drops the ball on any of the roles society tells her women must fulfill to be a “good” woman. Before making the film’s most drastic, life-changing decision, she accepts her teen daughter’s apology, cooks her family a big meal, and kisses her husband good morning.
It’s not that Lisa hasn’t fulfilled the roles of wife, mother, and women as they have been laid out by society; it’s that they are not enough—at least for this human. At one point in the movie, Lisa calls herself a “shadow” of a person, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, partially because we are the only ones who do. With one notable exception during the course of the film, we viewers are the only ones who notice Lisa is so mentally unhealthy.
Cleverly and subversively, The Kindergarten Teacher never shames or judges Lisa for her desires. Lisa isn’t unwell for the fact that she wishes to have an identity outside of the roles of mother, teacher, and wife that she’s squeezed every last ounce of personal fulfillment from, or for the anger she feels about the priorities of our culture; she is unwell because of how those desires are channeled into unhealthy, inappropriate, and harmful action. Even in Lisa’s most destructive moments, the film casts at least some of the blame on Lisa’s isolation on her social context.
After all, it’s easy for Lisa’s turmoil to go unnoticed, in great part because it is Lisa’s “job” to be the one who notices and deals with emotional upheaval, the one who rubs her students’ backs when they are struggling or forgives her own children when they say something unfeeling without thinking. There is no other character well-equipped by our culture to do the same for Lisa. She only has us viewers as allies, and that is a terrible tragedy that makes for a very good, extremely unsettling film.
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