Certain to be detested by kindergarten teachers everywhere, Sara Colangelo’s is-she-really-doing-that? quease-comedy The Kindergarten Teacher is so consummately cringe-inducing that you might have to peek at it through hands clasped over your eyes. I call it a quease-comedy because I laughed, a lot, although I seemed to be the only person in the screening room doing so. But it’s something more rich and unsettling than so flip a coinage suggests. Writer-director Colangelo’s second feature, based on a short by Nadav Lapid, won her the Directing Award for U.S. dramas at Sundance this year, and is often disquieting, verging at times into thriller territory. It toys with a big-idea question — what would you do if you thought you knew a Mozart-like child genius whose family didn’t support the kid’s gift? — but even more purposefully is toying with us. Just how many terrible choices are you willing to forgive a protagonist with whom you emphathize?
The teacher in question, played by an excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal, takes an insistent interest in the life and (apparent) art of five-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak), who occasionally goes into a shuffling trance and mumble-recites evocative verses of his own invention. The first, delivered in her classroom, ends, “The sun hits the yellow house/It is like a sign from God.” So struck is Lisa, the teacher, that she jots it down and passes it off as her own in her continuing education poetry workshop, winning the admiration of her foxy instructor, Gael Garcia Bernal. That’s an easy but delicious joke: The best thing in the creative writing class was tossed off by a child.
So Lisa dedicates herself to shaking some more lines out of the kid. She’s a sunny, patient instructor, but as she makes up excuses to get a moment alone with Jimmy, putting him in time-out or poking him awake at naptime, the film darkens. She’s too raw with the boy, too pushy in her efforts to get him to produce. In bleakly, creepily funny scenes, Gyllenhaal’s face presses into Sevak’s, cajoling him, her voice still his teacher’s but what she’s asking of him now is personal, even desperate. Soon she’s interrogating his nanny about his gift and annoyed to realize some of his lyrical flights aren’t being set down on paper. Then she’s contacting his family and putting her number into his cell phone. Everything gets worse from there. Slowly, murkily, Lisa’s motivation blossoms from self-aggrandizement to something more zealous: She’s not just impressing her own teacher, she’s keeping the light of genius lit for the benefit of humanity. (Which, of course, is even more self-aggrandizing.)
The movies often show us driven mentor-heroes dedicating themselves to gifted children; with piercing hilarity, The Kindergarten Teacher dares us to work out for ourselves, from moment to moment, whether Lisa is a hero, a monster, or something in between. Also fascinating: the questions of intentionality and authorship that Lisa never seems to consider. The final scenes lose some power thanks to a goofy plot development that hinges upon a bathroom door lock working the opposite of the way bathroom door locks are designed to work, but the final shot is a haunting wonder.