A fuss was made recently about The Upside, an American remake of foreign-language film Les Intouchables. Few saw its purpose, given the success of the well-loved original, but I took exception. While I appreciated many aspects of the French version, I also understand that films not in the English language don’t feel accessible for everyone. Many people simply don’t have the tolerance required for subtitles or dubbing, which is okay. There has been a comparable hoo-ha about Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, a largely faithful remake of critically-acclaimed Israeli film Haganenet. To those up in arms, I say: why can’t we just enjoy both?
The Kindergarten Teacher is an uneasy drama about obsession and inadequacy and brims with simmering tension. We follow patient, kind-hearted kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a woman who is clearly great at the job she loves but is bored with life and dejected by the lack of ambition in those around her. Her life is stale, her sex life quiet and her efforts to push her social-media-addicted daughter and high-school-dropout son fruitless. Lisa’s only solace is a regular poetry class, run by passionate instructor Simon (Gael García Bernal). Sadly, it turns out her writing is too derivative for his taste.
One afternoon, Lisa hears a poem fall from the lips of wise-beyond-his-years pupil Jimmy (Parker Sevak):
‘Anna is beautiful.
Beautiful enough for me.
The sun hits her yellow house.
It’s almost like a sign from God.’
It’s then she figures Jimmy might just be a child prodigy and becomes fixated on nurturing his capabilities, all the while passing off his poetry as her own to fill her creative void. Faced with apathy from his club-owning father and wannabe actress nanny, who think Jimmy is a mere ‘weirdo,’ Lisa makes some questionable choices that land her in boiling-hot water.
The Kindergarten Teacher is the superbly observed character study of a disenchanted forty-something, languishing in mediocracy and stirred by the new lease of vicarious life given to her by a gifted five-year-old. In a career-defining performance, an adaptable Gyllenhaal nails Lisa – a complex character, undoubtedly away with the fairies – as she relishes her new-found purpose. Darkly comedic at points but disturbing for the most part, this film leaves viewers wincing at clandestine bathroom meetings and tactile stolen moments; all very morally grey. Nonetheless, while Lisa’s actions feel dangerously close to grooming, Colangelo firmly reassures us that there’s no foul play here; that it’s all incredibly honourable. The director does a wonderful job at using well-meaning intentions to humanise an unstable protagonist and dubious objectives.
Lisa’s eventual unravelling is of her own making. Her self-importance extinguished is as she realises that ‘sadness never ends’ for people like her. ‘This world will erase you. You’ll be a shadow like me,’ she tells Jimmy. And it’s partially in the shadows that my final thoughts on this film lie, for I’m unclear as to whether I’m more distressed about her behaviour or sympathetic to her cause. Yes, the road she heads down may lead to perdition but many people can sympathise with her reality; one that seems like somebody else’s life.
Ultimately, this is a movie that leaves its audience conflicted in such a way, with their thoughts provoked into a storm, and gets a solid thumbs up from me. As The Kindergarten Teacher closes, Jimmy announces: ‘I have a poem.’ Nobody is listening, though. This final scene is so evocative and ambiguous that my head still throbs. Without Lisa to listen, what will become of his poetic prowess? Will the world erase him after all? Will he become a shadow like her? Oh Colangelo, you are an evil genius.