This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 18/10/2018.
Most of us will one day be made to face our own mediocrity, contend with the fact we’re only ordinary and find ways to fit into a world where we are merely spectators to more powerful, exceptional presences. For most of us though, this revelation will not lead to a complete psychotic break.
The Kindergarten Teacher provides Maggie Gyllenhaal with a career-defining performance that centres heavily on this particular realisation, and how it can completely break those whose passion is not matched by their aptitude. She plays Lisa, the titular kindergarten teacher, who fills her evenings with night-school poetry classes in the hopes of unlocking her deep desire to be a great artist.
Her efforts are met with criticism and apathy by her classmates, so when she discovers the innate, undeniable poetic genius of her pupil Jimmy (Parker Sevak), it takes her down a dangerously obsessive path, attempting to live vicariously through a five-year-old boy whose innocence and trust are easy to exploit.
Directed like clockwork by Sara Colangelo, Kindergarten Teacher is Gyllenhaal’s Taxi Driver – a quietly tour-de-force performance for the ages, delicately balancing the line between sympathy and villainy to create a sickeningly enthralling protagonist.
While her actions are undeniably extreme and disturbing, it’s a testament to the intricacy of Gyllenhaal’s work here that Lisa remains a figure to be empathised with right up to the aching closing frame – which returns to the impact her hubris has inadvertently brought on the unsuspecting Jimmy.
Intermingling a number of themes – bourgeois dismissal of real-world priorities, the compulsive attraction of control and success, and the ease with which authority figures can dangerously cross lines – The Kindergarten Teacher is a thrilling, nauseating showcase for one of this generation’s finest performers and a worthy highlight in Gyllenhaal’s catalogue.
CAST: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Anna Baryshnikov, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus
DIRECTOR: Sara Colangelo
WRITER: Sara Colangelo (based on the film by Nadav Lapid)
SYNOPSIS: A kindergarten teacher in New York becomes obsessed with one of her students whom she believes is a child prodigy.