It’s hard to argue with someone when they believe themselves to be a good person. Most people do I guess, but there’s some specific sort who believes that their success, or maybe their suffering — or any part of themselves they deem to be immutable — is what makes them virtuous. Maggie Gyllenhaal is The Kindergarten Teacher and she wears her vocation like a cross around her neck, returning to her New York suburb house in the evenings to a vacant husband, asshole kids, and a glass of wine.
That is, when it’s not one of the nights that she takes a ferry to the city to attend a poetry class for adults where her work is dismissed as derivative. It’s a level of indignity that she’s comfortable with, in her pretty kitchen she cooks meals that look like they’re outta some actual healthy eating book. Her attempts to connect with her family feel lifted from the self-help section, all about how things should be, rather than taking steps to improve things in a shape that makes sense.
It makes sense then that she’d grasp at the first fully formed solution that presents itself to her. One of the kids in her class reveals himself as a poetic prodigy and she interprets it as her reward for living a life she didn’t really choose. I mean, she wouldn’t put it that way of course; she’s a mentor to this child, the one who wants to see him live his best life.
It’s that duality which makes up the juicy core of Gyllenhaal’s performance. You get the sense that she’s probably a very good teacher, has a wonderful rapport with her students, and as she skirts just around the boundary of unprofessionalism she does so with what appears to be genuine warmth and kindness. Does she really live her life with this level of emotional accessibility, or her practise at performing it good enough to deceive even herself? For his part, Parker Sevak is wonderful as Jimmy, the child prodigy that she takes under her wing. Mostly in that he’s a naturalistic seeming kid and totally oblivious to whatever she’s trying to wring outta him at any specific moment.
His appearance in the film is like that of a living Rorschach test. One can just look into him and see whatever they want. Ajay Naidu as his father acknowledges that he’s a bit of an odd duck, but figures enough time around his peers will do him some good. Roza Salazar is a part time childminder who has little nicknames for him and around whom his energy seems boundless. Maybe these people just look at him and see the reality that they want, the idea of how their perfect child should act. It is possible to see also a small kid who just wants to do his best to impress the adults in his life.
Like, in one of his earlier interactions with her he lies about a dead mother. The reveal isn’t so much of a shock, everyone just figured that he was lying, nobody thinks to interrogate why though. They’ve their plans for this kid, and they’re going to run them through no matter what. There’s a wonderful queasiness to the slow unfolding of the mentorship that we see here. We know it’s wrong, like absolutely, but writer/director Sara Colangelo is so gentle in her characters’ convictions.
There’s this point where she asks the literal child what he thinks of her incredibly sexually inappropriate poem. And like, one can’t be entirely sure if she’s writing it it for him, or like for him. She’s clearly getting something from her time spent with this kid that she’s not getting from the family that she perceives as oafish (but who are in actuality fine, let your kids party woman). The closest she gets to a consummation is a quick fuck with her charming poetry teacher, Gael García Bernal, and when he gropes her in his office you get that she’s more flattered by the fact that he think she’s worth the risk.
Eventually things get pushed to a breaking point. It’s a bit of a reach, but according to the couple sitting behind me, it was something they actually needed to see. It just felt like a strange push towards a cynicism that the rest of the film doesn’t really exhibit. Like, Anna Baryshnikov plays the class’ teaching assistant and her presence and pointed glances get more time and emphasis as the film goes on without ever culminating in anything. When she is actually imbued with a greater textual importance, the film suddenly goes out of its way to sideline her.
There’s just a decline in empathy that we see in the closing moments; like the film really wants us to be shocked by what we’re seeing. When, really it has no way to reconcile the actions that we’re seeing with the emotional truth of what is depicted up until that point. There’s little moments that are come down with far more weight with the drastic action we see in the last ten minutes. It’s all quite expected and gets away with it thanks to the level of genuine discomfort that’s been laid on us up until that point.
Sure, like the final twist of the knife comes as a little unnecessary, but when you consider how slowly and excruciatingly it’s been driven directly into your chest up until that point, it becomes quite easy to forgive.
The Kindergarten Teacher is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy Thunderbird Releasing