Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Kindergarten Teacher

Director: Sara Colangelo
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Michael Chernus, Gael García Bernal, Anna Baryshnikov, Ajay Naidu, Rosa Salazar, Sam Jules, Daisy Tahan, Samrat Chakrabarti
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

If the goal of a teacher at all education levels is to help their students reach their fullest potential, just a nudge or push in the right direction can often let them know they're capable of more than they suspected. With the proper guidance, they can get there, and when it happens, this achievement accompanies a realization that the ability was actually in them along, and just needed some nurturing to reveal itself. In Netflix's disturbing and thought-provoking The Kindergarten Teacher, the title character lives and breathes to provide such inspiration for her students.

Under usual circumstances, this kind of devotion is admirable. What's not are the lines she's willing to cross to provide it, calling into question the very definition of the word "teacher," specifically when their involvement in students' lives starts to become about something other than the kids. Most would agree if there's a clear line, she jumps right over it, resulting in disastrous if not potentially dangerous consequences for those directly involved. It also has a lot to say about the pressures adults put on themselves and how easily they're capable of projecting them onto those least equipped to handle it.

Entrusted with a job requiring almost complete selflessness, she instead disappears into her own mind and insecurities, attempting to rectify her failures through an impressionable child. Using him to fill a seemingly unsatiable void in her life, it plays out like a horror movie with a situation that starts innocently, until escalating enough to where the tension reaches a boiling point.

While it becomes frighteningly apparent just how far this woman can go, we're still not quite sure the distance writer/director Sara Colangelo's script will, or how it can possibly resolve itself without manipulation. And yet it somehow does, in equally observant ways. Nothing that occurs couldn't happen, and it probably has, which only makes it that much more uncomfortable to watch. At its center is a revelatory lead performance from an accomplished but long underrated actress that's a subtle tightrope walk of emotions.

With two decades as an educator already behind her, New York-based kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gylenhaal) is merely going through the motions at home with husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), while barely trying to mask her dissapointment in unambitious teen children Lainie (Daisy Tahan) and Josh (Sam Jules). Determined to become a published poet, she takes night classes, only to find her work routinely picked apart and dismissed by both her peers and their instructor, Simon (Gael García Bernal). Creative salvation soon comes from one of her students, 5 year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a child prodigy who's capable of unexpectedly blurting out beautiful poems at will.

Looking to harness and mold Jimmy's untapped potential, Lisa makes him her personal project, rushing for a pen and paper whenever inspiration strikes and even going so far as to actually present his work as her own. The more she smothers him with attention the clearer it becomes that it isn't even really about him anymore. And in trying to "rescue" Jimmy from a passionless world she views as incapable of faciliatating his unique talent, her obsessive mentoring soon crosses into territory from which there's no turning back for either.

Open-hearted, quirky and achingly sincere, Lisa can't seem to comprehend how a child with so much to offer the world isn't being encouraged or intellectually stimulated in any way. But what Colangelo's script (which she based upon the 2014 Israeli film) is good at emphasizing is Lisa's slow-building inability to grasp the reality that this is still a five-year-old we're talking about. He's somewhat shy and withdrawn, but at the end of the day, he just wants to hang out with his friends and and play like all kids his age. It's when she becomes aggressively involved in his home life, making judgments about his frequently absent father (Samrat Chakrabarti) and even the babysitter (Rosa Salazar), that this may be about something else entirely.

Giving her best performance since Secretary, Gyllenhaal plays Lisa as disarmingly normal and competent when we first meet her. Her head may be a bit in the clouds, but we never doubt she's a good teacher, or at least was. It's only when the layers get peeled back with the introduction of this student that she slowly unravels, using him as a vessel to fix what she believes is her own failure of a life. In a memorable scene at home, her daughter even says as much right to her face.

More impressively, Gyllenhaal and young Parker Sevak's scenes manage to find that realistic sweet spot in an extremely disconcerting dynamic that will give all parents another reason to worry about sending their kids off to kindergarten. As Lisa's teacher, Gael García Bernal may not seem to have much of a role, but his character is important in that he's also being manipulated. That he only starts to take both a professional and personal interest in her when she assumes this new persona is further ammunition for Lisa to hate herself more, and double down on the deception. But he's no victim, guilty himself of abusing his position, proving to be in this for more than just the sake of art.      

It takes the characters in the script longer to figure out what's going on than we do, but in this case, that makes sense because it takes a while for Lisa to unravel. Only when Colangelo takes the premise and milks every last minute of queasy suspense from it, do Lisa's intentions and actions arrive at a destination that only in hindsight seems to be the most logical of resolutions. Trapped and with seeimgly no way out, she must come face-to-face with her actions, receiving punishment from the person most affected by them. That even in her lowest, most desperate point, this woman still can't help but teach might be the The Kindergarten Teacher's most powerful and pitifully sad moment. As the true magnitude of her actions settle in, it's a lesson learned too late, but perhaps just in time for those affected by what she's done.

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