Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing at the age of 5. He was a prodigy, a child born with a rare artistic gift that was nurtured and allowed to flourish by virtue of patronage. European royals vied for the honor of hosting him for court performances, giving him the financial resources and educational support to continue to grow, and prosper. The result is a body of work that has endured for centuries, and irreversibly shaped the way we think about music.
But what if Mozart were to appear in 2018? What kind of world would he encounter then? Would we encourage his talent, or suppress it in favor of more tangible, money-making skills?
That’s the question that The Kindergarten Teacher — on a surface level at least — seeks to address. The Netflix film, simultaneously available for streaming and in theaters on October 5, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher who develops an obsession for one of her students after she starts suspecting he might be a poetic genius.
An aspiring poet herself, Lisa is frustrated with the banality of her everyday surroundings. Her poetry teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) thinks her poems are ordinary. Her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) is nice, but too familiar to be interesting. Her teenage daughter (Daisy Tahan) would rather be on her phone than reading a book, and her son (Sam Jules) is interested in joining the Marines, a calling she deems beneath him. She’s a smart woman who’s disappointed at where she’s ended up in life, and is starting to lose faith in her own abilities as a potential artist.
But breathing new life into the old adage, “those who can’t do, teach.” Lisa soon finds renewed purpose in encouraging five and a half year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) after she overhears him composing a poem after school. Convinced that he’s a brilliant mind who will lose his gift to an overly materialistic society, Lisa decides to pay him special attention.
It starts out fairly harmlessly. Impressed by the breadth of Jimmy’s vocabulary and the phrasing that is far beyond his years, Lisa asks his babysitter to write down any of the poems she hears. But soon enough, Lisa’s initial interest veers into a darker, more twisted place. She starts presenting Jimmy’s work as her own in her poetry class, drunk on the feeling of appreciation and awe she’s getting from her teacher and fellow students. And then, she starts pulling Jimmy aside at naptime to impress upon him lessons she thinks are important for a poet. That in turn leads to her putting her phone number in his cell phone, requesting that he call her whenever he thinks of a poem so she can write it down. And so on, until things climax in a disturbing incident towards the end of the film.
But what’s fascinating about the film is what it doesn’t say. It’s hard to tell if Jimmy really is a genius — certainly, his poetry is impressive, especially as it was written for the film by real-life poets Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, Dominique Townsend, and Eden Merriman, among others — of if he’s just making the kind of abstract and fascinating connections that children sometimes do, and happens to be better at expressing them. Is Lisa projecting her own aspirations onto him? Or, is she really trying to do what is in his best interest? And more urgently, does she actually pose a threat to his well-being? The fact that Lisa appears to be an excellent kindergarten teacher muddies the waters even further. You want to root for her, even as you worry about him. It’s not that unusual for a teacher to mold young minds, but where do you draw the line?
Sarah Colangelo directs this American adaptation of Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s 2014 drama by the same name, and she masterfully creates an atmosphere of discomfort, if not outright horror. The buildup is slow and steady, as more and more people in Lisa’s orbit start to notice that something isn’t quite right in the way she’s singling out Jimmy.
Gyllenhaal is absolutely mesmerizing in this role, which strangely feels like an extension of her character on HBO’s The Deuce, in that they’re both women who are discovering what the world expects of them, and don’t quite like the answer (although they react in wildly different ways). Speaking at a panel at the New Yorker Festival last weekend, the actress said that she sees Lisa’s actions as “what happens when you starve a brilliant woman’s mind.”
Perhaps as a result of that long period of deprivation, Lisa is at her most magnetic when she’s transgressing: savoring each word of Jimmy’s poem as she passes it off as her own, leading the child out to the playground for heart-to-hearts, or even confronting his relatives, all the while convinced that she’s seen something that everyone else is blind to. She’s feeling her own power for the first time, and that’s a mighty force to witness — even as she’s channeling that fervor to very questionable ends.