Because it is human nature to always want to explain everything, there are countless contradictory theories we can fall back on when discussing the idea of talent. Some argue that it is given, others insist it can be developed. Circumstances may help make sense of why Vincent van Gogh adopted the colourful, fantastic style he later became famous for, but he was reviled by those who lived under similar conditions. The most convincing yet unsatisfactory explanation for the existence of talent remains that it simply cannot be explained. It either is, or it is not.
But in Sara Colangelo’s film The Kindergarten Teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a great educator precisely because she does believe in nurture: her little students are supervised but always free to color outside the lines, make mistakes and say the first word that crosses their minds (within the limits of respectability). But is that easy-going approach developing the kids’ curiosity or simply letting them be children, clumsily getting familiar with the world and with themselves?
Colangelo (who re-sets Nadiv Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film of the same name in New York City) doesn’t smooth out the rough edges of Lisa’s convictions, letting her instead be a character who frustrates with both her determination and her inconsistency. At home and at her adult poetry class, Lisa feels depressed. The artless routine of her household drags her down and distances her from her millennial, hyper-connected children. All Lisa’s ideas and ideals about providing a liberal setting for the creativity of her family and herself don’t seem to have beared fruits. But in class, Lisa’s purpose is clear, and the results of her care are safely hidden away in the distant future, where her students will be grown adults.
When an exception comes to disturb that fragile balance, Lisa’s reaction is hard to explain too. One day while waiting for his nanny to come and pick him up, five-and-a-half-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) suddenly starts reciting verses he has made up himself — and they are beautiful. For Lisa, their maturity and simplicity are evidence that she must protect this new poetic voice, one way or another.
Colangelo remains ever humane, allowing her female protagonist a degree of nastiness and complexity too rare in cinema. Lisa is both affectionate and selfish, reasonable and extravagant, all because she truly cares about art. What makes her always compelling is that there is always a thought-through reason behind her actions, even if that reason can be extreme and requires a lot of intellectual gymnastics (aka hypocrisy) to seem convincing. She may be introducing Jimmy to the idea of “point of view” mostly to get a poem out of him (and perhaps to impress her hot and encouraging teacher, played by Gael García Bernal), but she also believes in the value of this exercise for him.
The very images by cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino embrace Lisa’s contradictions. Focused on performance, the framing and editing let emotions emerge, build up and evolve in a single shot. The patient and smart camera catches those crucial moments when Lisa, in her idealistic anxiety, reframes her thoughts. With her renowned youthful enthusiasm, Gyllenhaal unsurprisingly proves a perfect choice to play a sprightly teacher. Where she most effectively shows her genuine talent is in Lisa’s viciousness and vulnerability. She manipulates the quiet and soft-spoken Jimmy with tender words, but her frightening determination always shows. With tact, the film savours the blurry line between care and abuse that Lisa treads.
The Kindergarten Teacher is purposefully not a comfortable watch, but it satisfies in many ways. Not only is its central character an imperfect woman, but she also expresses her palpable rage in a strange and fascinating form of intellectual violence. Her direct confrontation with the question of creativity is both harrowing and stimulating, highlighting as it does how art is always more than for its own sake: behind every poem or every painting, there’s a person feeling his or her way through the world.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.