Review: THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of a handful of actors that can compel me to go see a film simply by virtue of their name alone. Such is her mercurial talent and on-screen charisma, whether its playing the timid but sexually-awakened titular character in Secretary (2002) or a commanding but conflicted peer in The Honourable Woman (2014), Gyllenhaal has carved out a niche for playing interesting and withholding characters both on TV and in cinema. Her draw then, extended to yet another title role, this time The Kindergarten Teacher, written and directed by Sara Colangelo. 

Due to the increasingly intense nature of the story, I’ll keep the synopsis brief: Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, an unfulfilled teacher begins to claim the spontaneous poems spouted by a young pupil in her class as her own for her poetry class. It’s a simple but intriguing set-up, and being based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, it has a lot to do to make the remake worthwhile.

Five year-old Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak is also an impressive but unnerving presence. Much like his character, Parker seems unaware of his talent, displaying a placid exterior but perhaps slightly weary of his teacher’s unwarranted attentions. As Lisa becomes more and more compromised, we’re left feeling concerned, perhaps even terrified, for the genius child’s welfare. I can’t remember feeling more scared during a swimming scene since Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Almost immediately, however, you are lulled into the narrative, and the indie touch to the domestic and school scenes are matter of fact, unshowy and believable, even if the teenage children are merely ciphers to demonstrate the generational stalemate that adds to Lisa’s unsatisfied life. Almost all of Gyllenhaal’s lead performances could be classed as a career high, but as the alarmingly determined Lisa, we are never on safe footing, but party to a performance that shakes with ruinous mid-life frustration. A fellow film writer, Rhys Handley termed this as “Maggie Gyllenhaal’s own Taxi Driver” and I couldn’t have summed it up better. Damn. 

Yet again another masterclass from Gyllenhaal, reaffirming her position as one of the boldest actors out there. If you can handle having your stomach in knots for pretty much most of the third act, then give The Kindergarten Teacher a go. 

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