Monday, 23 November 2020

Mubi Monday: The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

The second feature from writer-director Sara Colangelo, a remake of a 2014 movie, The Kindergarten Teacher is all about, funnily enough, a kindergarten teacher (Lisa, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who becomes quite obsessed with a young boy, Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), who seems to have a knack for poetry. Lisa wants Jimmy Roy to have the freedom to reach his full potential, which starts her on a path that leads to selfishness, awkwardness, and damaged relationships.

Although specifically about the journey of Lisa, both using Jimmy Roy and also trying her best to get him to develop his talent, The Kindergarten Teacher is more generally about the frustration of a soul wanting a life in pursuit of art and culture, and wanting to encourage others to do the same. Lisa initially seems very sweet and supportive, but it quickly becomes clear that her approach is guided by her own agenda, as opposed to what Jimmy Roy may want for his own life.

Colangelo, her screenplay based on that from Nadav Lapid, plays things just right, creeping in close when Lisa starts to focus more on Jimmy Roy, staying there for some quieter conversations that are designed not to be heard by the other children, and then pulling back slightly to show the two of them together, often highlighting just how much one child is being separated from a larger group that may keep him in a more suitable environment, allowing him to simply be a child.

Tricky material to handle, things are elevated by the central performances. Gyllenhaal is excellent, managing to just about keep viewers on board, even as her behaviour becomes more and more unacceptable. Sevak gives a wonderful turn, often acting sweetly oblivious to the inappropriate actions of one of the main adults in his life. Gael García Bernal stands out as the teacher of a poetry class, unwittingly motivating Lisa, who starts to test the waters by sharing the poems from Jimmy Roy, while claiming them as her own. Michael Chernus plays Grant Spinelli, the husband of Lisa, and does good work, as does everyone else with their name in the credits, but any scenes not featuring Gyllenhaal and Sevak tend to end up feeling like so much padding. They are the heart of the film, in terms of the ideas being explored and the strongest performances, and they make the whole thing worth watching, even during the times when you may want to cringe and turn it off.

Far from perfect, and many viewers will lose patience with the lead character before I did, this is still one to give your time to, a thought-provoking rumination on what it takes to fan a childish spark of creativity into a life-long passion for the pursuit of art, but equally a reminder to let children be children, because their world-view and innocence, their ability to keep hold of what we may have lost on our way to adulthood, is not for our benefit. It's just all part of being a child.


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