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Sundance 2018 Review: ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

Sundance 2018 Review: ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

The Kindergarten Teacher, Sundance, Sundance 2018, Maggie Gyllenhaal

In discussion Lisa’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) job as a kindergarten teacher, her poetry professor (Gael García Bernal) describes what’s crucial about teaching students at that transformative age; it’s a time where what they learn and experience presents some of of the most impactful lessons to their psyche. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to protect and foster those student’s gifts. The Kindergarten Teacher is a wild exploration of what happens when a teacher fostering her student’s talent goes too far. Directed by Sara Colangelo, it is an intense, creepy and uncomfortable film that examines how art can fuel unhealthy passions. 

Kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli is searching for purpose beyond her husband, teen children, and her classroom. She joins a continuing education class focused on poetry to feel more inspired in her life. Her poetry is received as generic by her classmates and professor. However, she discovers her student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) has an aptitude for poetry and uses his work in her next classes. Fascinated by his gift, Lisa works to encourage him to continue writing and, quickly, that fascination grows into obsession and duly crosses the line.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an unhinged performance that is emotionally righteous but also compassionate. Her unhealthy obsession with Jimmy’s gift toes the line of volatility and crosses the line into inappropriate behavior. Gyllenhaal’s choice to play this character as someone who morally believes her methods are sound is hard to watch due to the unprofessional nature these methods take. Regardless, her sickly sweetness is attention-grabbing.

Playing double duty as writer & director, Colangelo based this film on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name,while adding elements to it that are uniquely her own. One particular aspect that differs from the original is her casting of a child actor of color to play the role of Jimmy, while the original’s student was white. This adds a possibly unintentional facet to Lisa stealing Jimmy’s poetry and co-opting it as her own. It sends a message that, even at a young age, people of color can expect their talent and labor to be stolen by others.

The ending of the film brings closure to the relationship between Lisa and Jimmy, but also leaves a gaping wound in its wake. The words that Lisa’s poetry professor told her ring true: the impact on Jimmy’s life has already sunk in. With Jimmy’s last words being a quiet request for someone to hear him, you feel how lasting Lisa’s impact on his life will be.

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BGN is a proud partner with Pop Culture Collaborative for the 2018 Sundance Festival.

The Pop Culture Collaborative is a 5-year, $25 million fund organized by leading philanthropies to support artists and activists working at the intersection of entertainment and social change.  

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