Sunday 10 March 2019

Extracurricular activity: "The Kindergarten Teacher"

The Kindergarten Teacher, as befits an English-language remake of an Israeli original, hinges upon questions of authorship. We join its eponymous heroine Lisa inside the classroom, guiding bright-eyed preschoolers in forming their consonants, and hinting that teaching these kids to write offers some consolation for the way in which her own ambitions have been thwarted. She shapes up as an initially sympathetic figure, more so for being played by the generally sympathetic Maggie Gyllenhaal; what follows will push and stretch those sympathies to the limit. One of Lisa's charges is Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a five-year-old prone to spouting impromptu word salads that, when committed to paper, assume the look of poetry. Where the boy gets these words from - he speaks them absentmindedly, as though in a trance - is a matter of some mystery. What's crucial is what Lisa does with them: scooping them up, she carries them along to the night class she takes in creative writing, and passes them off as her own. A scribbler whose own work has previously been dismissed as derivative soon shoots to the top of the class, catching the eye of her teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal), but you and I are left wondering how much longer Lisa can keep going back to her five-year-old well. Very early on, the film imprints upon us the mental image of a grown woman holding a preschooler upside down by the ankles and shaking him to see what comes out - not an especially good look for any teacher.

What's distinctive about Sara Colangelo's film, reworked from Nadav Lapid's 2014 feature, is that it exists at the intersection of several genres simultaneously. Most sane listings guides will pin The Kindergarten Teacher down as drama, and they wouldn't be incorrect in doing that. Yet a sly element of black comedy becomes apparent as Lisa hares around looking for a pen, grows annoyed when Jimmy refuses to repeat key phrases, and starts leaning on the boy's nearest and dearest in a bid to maintain creative control. The movie's drollest, funniest joke is that the boy appears, at all times, utterly unfussed by any of the attention being turned his way: Sevak, very carefully directed, somehow suggests Jimmy would just as shruggingly run off after the ice cream man were he to be promised extra sprinkles. He's not the Messiah Lisa seems to believe he is, just an unusually advanced boy. And yet with only a slight tonal shift, you feel the film could easily tilt in the direction of horror, premised on this woman's mounting obsession with a child who isn't her own. Colangelo never allows us to relax. She gets the classroom atmosphere just right, as Lisa dutifully passes out the snacks and grape juice and hangs up the fingerpaintings, but then she shows us the same woman whispering in her quarry's ear at naptime before whisking him away to the bathroom; the film establishes the proverbial safe space, then gradually introduces more disquieting notes. We're left with a strong sense that this story can only end badly, but also that it could end badly in any number of ways.

It is, then, more of a creeper than a thriller, calmly, quietly sneaking up on the viewer, then leading him or her by the hand into the middle of its everyday, torn-from-the-headlines weirdness. That brilliantly maintained lower key grants this script's subtle cruelties and complexities a walloping quality. You can almost hear the dreams being crushed as Lisa has her labours smacked down by her own teenage-ingrate kids, then by Simon, then - perhaps most deflatingly of all - by the five-year-old; and we have the time to mull over the fact that it's a nice, well-intentioned white liberal who's running off with the Indian-American Jimmy. (Lisa takes cultural appropriation to another level.) By far the most forceful aspect, however, is Gyllenhaal, entirely persuasive as a woman who abandons the core curriculum on a whim in the first scene to drift further and further away from anything like education. The more time her Lisa spends on Project Jimmy, the more the other kids fade into the background; the "The" of the title could easily be substituted for the now-standard notation "Bad". What she and Colangelo have accomplished is never so clear-cut as simple character study, in part because it keeps teasing us with competing psychological explanations for this woman's behaviour. (If it's not plain plagiarism, could this be Lisa's last-gasp shot at becoming a showbiz mum? A manifestation of some desire to start parenting from scratch? Just common-or-garden loopiness?) It is, though, fascinating to watch such a persistent misapplication of energies. I can't say you'll cheer a single thing the title character does over the course of these 100 minutes, but it's one of those roles that allows a terrific actress to outline a genuinely messy, complicated woman.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now playing in selected cinemas.

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