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TIFF Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

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“In a couple of years you’ll be a shadow, just like me,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Lisa tells her young student in The Kindergarten Teacher.  And that sentence perhaps sums up the many themes that weave their way through this feature such as trust, in particular that between a teacher and student, one’s self-worth and culture’s feeling towards the arts art in general.

All of this is explored through the eyes of Lisa, a Kindergarten teacher who takes a continuing education poetry class (led by Gael Garcia Bernal).  She has children of her own, teenagers who value time with their phones and their friends more than at home, and a husband who tries to connect with Lisa through support of her poetry, though he doesn’t really understand.  Enter Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a five year old student that randomly creates beautiful poetry.  When Lisa discovers his incredible talent, she takes it upon herself to try and protect it, to nurture it, almost at times to absorb it.  But, what starts as an interest in a pupil, soon crosses a dangerous line.

It took me some time to digest The Kindergarten Teacher and fully assess its value.  Having won director Sara Colangelo a Best Director award when the film launched at Sundance, expectations for this Netflix production were high.  Upon watching this movie, which is a remake of an Israeli production of the same name, I couldn’t help but wonder how differently it would be perceived if Lisa’s character was, instead, a man.  That perhaps is a whole different article, however either way this can be, in places uncomfortable to watch.  Credit for that goes wholeheartedly to Colangelo who manages to control the overall tone of the film to highlight this, even when the pacing sometimes stumbles.

Gyllenhaal is a fine choice to play the teacher, sincerity oozing from her in every frame.  Lisa truly believes, even later when things are evidently going terribly wrong that she is justified, and Gyllenhaal brings sympathy to a character that increasingly doesn’t deserve it.  She also prevents the movie from getting too campy, and it could have easily gone there at the end as it teeters on the brink of going over the top.  Gyllenhaal grounds this film when it falters, and without her, we may have had a much different result.

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