Every now and then I run a review of a movie or television show that involves education in some way. “The Kindergarten Teacher” isn’t exactly about kindergarten but rather the story of a teacher, portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who becomes obsessed with a young student who she thinks is a poetic prodigy. A remake of a 2014 Israeli film, the Gyllenhaal version has been critically applauded, with an 89 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and reviews that hail her performance even while noting how creepy her obsession becomes.
Only a few of the reviews look at the film through the experience of the 5-year-old student of color at the hands of a white teacher, such as one by Variety writer Dennis Harvey, who said: “A movie whose glass is half empty — maybe it’s just not possible to have a story about a 5-year-old’s de facto stalker that isn’t sure what it (or we) should think about the matter.”
Following is a full review that does the same thing, this one by Mae Abdulbaki, the TV section editor of a website called the Young Folks, an online place for young people to read entertainment criticism and news. She founded the website Movies With Mae in 2013 and is a voting member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and the Black Reel Awards. You can find her published works here, here and here. She gave me permission to republish this review, which first appeared on theyoungfolks.com.
By Mae Abdulbaki
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is many things, but an inspirational story about seeing and harnessing talent in a child is not one of them. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, based on the screenplay by Nadav Lapid, the film is full of missteps, an “I don’t see color” attitude and a creepy teacher/student relationship that becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch.
Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is, as the title states, a kindergarten teacher. She’s been teaching for two decades and is taking a poetry class in the evenings. But her frustration lies in the fact that she isn’t seen nor does she have a talent that makes her feel special in any way. Her poetry teacher (Gael García Bernal) and the other students call her work “derivative,” and she’s constantly complaining about her kids not living up to their potential and how they could do “better” in almost every aspect of their lives.
When Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) composes a brilliant poem out of thin air one day after school, Lisa is immediately drawn to him and smitten by his talent. It’s a talent she knows she will never have and from someone so young. She becomes determined to shelter him and hone his skills… by waking him from his naps at school to talk to him about what it is he should and shouldn’t be doing, sitting with him in time out to further discuss his poetry, and showing up at both his uncle’s and father’s places of work so she can convince them that Jimmy needs someone to look after him who’s invested in him. Yeah, because that’s not creepy at all, right?
What’s worse is that Lisa, believing she’s helping Jimmy in a world that will overlook his talent, writes down his poems and proceeds to share them in her class as her own.
What is this movie trying to say? That a woman must feed on underage talent in order to feel alive? That being starved for attention and feeling unseen in this world will lead to taking extreme action and exploiting a child for your own gain?
While it’s fascinating to see how suffering in silence can take its toll and feeling like a shadow in a world full of voices wanting and needing to be heard can be hard on your mental state, it’s also not okay to take advantage of a child who can’t grasp and understand what it is you’re doing.
Gyllenhaal’s Lisa Spinelli completely breaks the teacher/student trust, oversteps her boundaries, plagiarizes and exploits a child, all in the name of art. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch someone be so reckless and terrible. It also negates the whole notion that gifted children should be uplifted and supported, an argument that tries so hard to take center stage. And the point is overlooked because Lisa makes the entire situation about herself while Jimmy is used only as a stepping stone toward finding greatness and validation for Lisa.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is also truly color blind, which is a problem because it’s very much a white woman who is taking advantage of a child of color. Jimmy’s cultural background is never brought up and this is a detriment to the film since this fact subtly plays a role in every event that transpires.
It’s hard not to believe that Lisa doesn’t cling to Jimmy because of her white privilege. Would she have treated a 5-year-old white child this way? Is it the need to help the under-served community that makes it more worthwhile and beneficial for her? Or is it just selfishness that leads to her exploitation of a child who doesn’t know why this teacher has suddenly begun treating him with so much reverence?
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is painful to watch primarily because it uses exploitation as a means to further understand an overlooked woman trying to stand out among the world’s population. To be seen as special, she does things that make her stand out alright, but not for anything remotely good. Lisa may have compared Jimmy to the next Mozart, but none of it is really about him at all.
The portrayal of Gyllenhaal’s Lisa is downright creepy and the disturbing behavior is presented in a way that isn’t fully acknowledged as such until the very end (and even then, it’s coming from a hypocritical source). We’re given Lisa’s point of view and her feelings are understandable. Her actions and behavior, however, are not. By the time she commits her worst transgression of all and she finally becomes semi-aware of the problematic things she’s doing, it’s far too late.