The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)
Written & Directed by Sara Colangelo
In the middle of The Kindergarten Teacher, the titular educator, Lisa is sitting in the office of her poetry teacher Simon. She’s going to night school to workshop her poems, and he’s interested in some pieces she’s brought in. When Simon learns she teaches the littlest of students, he remarks, “That’s so fragile. You give them something that they carry with them forever.” You see Lisa contemplating this statement and realizes he’s correct, weighing how much influence she truly has over these tiny people charged to her care. Lisa’s entire arc in this film is about her own fragility and regret, which is what drives her to take some shocking actions.
Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggles in her poetry class, her work being called “derivative.” One day while cleaning up her room after school, Lisa overhears her student Jimmy spontaneously composing a poem out loud while pacing on the carpet.
Anna is beautiful.
Beautiful enough for me.
The sun hits her yellow house.
It’s almost like a sign from God.
Lisa is naturally stunned and begins asking questions of Jimmy’s nanny and learns he does this often. Recognizing a profound gift in her student, the teacher starts to manipulate the situation. She sees Jimmy as a poetic Mozart, a child prodigy whose gift should be nurtured. The people in Jimmy’s life don’t seem to care much about his talent and push him to be “normal.”
This is juxtaposed against Lisa’s home life, where she looks at her two teenaged children and sees herself reflected in their choices to simply be young adults. Her son, with prospects at some good colleges, has chosen to go into the Marines, which disappoints her. Lisa’s daughter isn’t interested in academic activities outside of school and wants to hang out with her friends most of the time. Lisa’s husband doesn’t seem to understand the poetry she writes, talking about it only on a surface level and telling her it’s good the same evening it gets dismissed by her professor.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a dark psychological film but unfolds its story in a quiet, thoughtful way. Lisa’s descent into her mental breakdown is played very realistically; she seems in full control of her faculties, and the decisions she makes are sensible to her. As outsiders, we can see the walls crumbling around her, knowing that soon Lisa will catch back up to reality and realize what she’s done.
The audience is still kept at arm’s length from Lisa’s full motivations. There are many ways to interpret her choices surrounding Jimmy. She can be seen as a protective nurturer, a natural fit for someone who teaches such young children. Lisa recognizes this young child’s brilliance and wants to help him grow into one of the great poets of our time. But then, she makes other choices, more self-serving ones that point at jealousy towards Jimmy and ultimately resentment of her teacher and fellow poetry students. Lisa is a very complex, adult character that can’t be explained in simple terms.
Jimmy is a stunningly talented child, possessing an ability to mold language like clay and understanding metaphor at such a young age. Lisa is partially right when she realizes the people in his life don’t support him, and he needs to be nurtured. The things she does completely cross a line of professionalism and legality. But the final scene of the picture reinforces that without anyone there to hear him, Jimmy’s gift will fade and die. The movie never casts judgment on any character, they are who they are with their own point of view. Even Lisa accepts her fate when it becomes clear, she has gone too far and also broken the law. And so the picture hangs like an unanswered question over our heads. We are all born with some genius and often time and society work that ability out of us, honing us to mediocrity. But what happens when you see that brilliance in another but don’t have the power to help those flames rise? Is it morally correct to stay in your place and let a child’s genius die?