Maggie Gyllenhaal is great at making audiences uncomfortable. Even in her more sedate, straightforward roles, there’s often a sense of something off-kilter and unstable, and she’s never afraid to play characters who are abrasive and confrontational, whether that’s the desperate addict of Sherrybaby or the sexual masochist of Secretary or the business executive of The Honourable Woman. So she’s perfect to star as the title character in The Kindergarten Teacher, Sara Colangelo’s remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film. Gyllenhaal’s Lisa Spinelli is a deeply troubled woman whose seemingly placid life falls to pieces when she becomes obsessed with one of her students.
After two decades as a teacher in Staten Island, Lisa has settled into a comfortable but numbing routine with her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) and their two teenage kids, and she’s obviously feeling increasingly stifled. She’s attempting to exercise her creativity by taking a continuing education course in poetry writing, led by a smoldering, passionate instructor (Gael García Bernal). But Lisa clearly has no talent for poetry, and she knows it. She longs for an artistic life that she’ll never have, so when she overhears her five-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) spontaneously reciting a brilliant piece of poetry, she seizes on his budding talent as a way to realize her own thwarted dreams.
The problem is that Lisa’s interest in Jimmy quickly becomes all-consuming, to the detriment of her relationship with her family and in the face of resistance from Jimmy’s distant, pragmatic father and various indifferent caregivers, who don’t share Lisa’s enthusiasm for the young boy’s talent. It’s not hard to see the good intentions beneath Lisa’s behavior as she isolates and manipulates Jimmy, all for the sake of nurturing his creativity. Yet every decision she makes puts her further down an irredeemable path, and the movie’s power comes from making those decisions feel tragic and heartbreaking rather than infuriating.
Gyllenhaal’s fantastic performance makes every one of those decisions completely believable, keeping Lisa a sympathetic character even when she’s methodically ruining her own life. Colangelo provides very little back story for Lisa, but Gyllenhaal shows everything the audience needs to know right on her face, conveying the weight of years of disappointment in every look and expression. Colangelo never judges Lisa, letting her actions play out slowly and deliberately, leaving it up to the audience to evaluate her motives and desires. Lisa is a lone advocate for the power and beauty of art, and even if she’s misguided, she’s also pure of heart in a way that no one around her understands.
Watching Lisa as she stumbles toward a plan can be painful and anxiety-inducing, and Gyllenhaal is in nearly every frame of the movie, never allowing the viewer to look away from Lisa’s emotional breakdown. She’s as mesmerizing as she is disquieting, and she’s complemented well by Sevak as the quiet, withdrawn Jimmy, whose inner life is a mystery even when he delivers his evocative, oddly sophisticated compositions. They’re two people who don’t fit in the world around them, and even if their connection turns out to be disastrous, there’s something strangely hopeful about it as well.