Tom’s Rating: 6⁄10; Lucy’s Rating: “0.5 higher than Widows”.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a slow-burn introspection of a struggling woman’s unhealthy obsession with the poems of five-year-old Jimmy . Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays Lisa Spinelli’s descent into an increasingly problematic relationship with her student is an uncomfortable watch. But perhaps, at times, it was a little too arthouse, and a little too slow to move on in the plot.
The film’s style was effective in making believable the rather unbelievable actions of Lisa - a mother of three nearly grown-up children, and a kindergarten teacher, who midway through the film happens to be plumbing her number into a five-year-old’s phone. The scenes layer on top of each other, slowly escalating the relationship between these two, increasingly outrageous and concerning.
Her obsession with Jimmy is complex and well-written. This is not a straightforwardly amorous relationship. And her jealousy is not quite a direct result of Jimmy’s abilities per se, but at the ease with which he is able to break into the “cultured” class that seems to evade Lisa herself continually. The talented kindergarten student becomes her bridge to that world, and despite the fact even he spurns her later on, she refuses to retreat from Jimmy’s life.
While Parker Sevak’s Jimmy is incredibly well portrayed, I found the film’s portrayal of Jimmy’s talents slightly unbelievable. The scripting was too fanciful, in my opinion. I could never quite drop the suspicion that the central conceit would turn out to be that Jimmy was reciting rather than creating his poetry. And the way he obsessively paces out verse made him look almost possessed, and I’m not sure I fully bought this directorial decision. His first poem is fitting, but his later one’s seem to develop too fast even for someone as prodigal as Jimmy.
In general, despite the arthouse slow-burn that allowed Gyllenhaal’s character to regress, there was a point two-thirds through where I started to check my watch. At 97 minutes, this film is not long - but it felt it. This was in part due to the relative nonchalance of the rest of the cast to Lisa’s actions. It is hinted early on that the babysitter finds Lisa’s behaviour odd, but she never challenges her. Jimmy’s father, too, is conveniently “a very busy man”, and even after Lisa lies and takes Jimmy to a poetry recital his only response is to move Jimmy to a new kindergarten. While Gylenhaal’s character developed in an outrageous but believable way, the inaction of other characters’ ruined this. Why isn’t the classroom assistant more weirded out by Lisa’s insistence of taking Jimmy out alone at naptime? Why doesn’t Jimmy’s father report her earlier on?
The film never quite dispels these doubts, and so it’s effect hinges on the character development of Lisa alone. The ending was, admittedly, satisfying - Lisa’s own acquiescence fittingly nuanced. Despite my doubts through the film’s prolonged middle, this was not a bad film by any means. But it’s certainly an uncomfortable and slow one.