A full-grown woman is sitting on a children-sized chair in an empty classroom: the opening shot of Sara Colangelo’s second feature film, The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) finds its tension in the teacher-student relationship. Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a teacher who attends poetry classes and secretly wishes to spice up her life with intellectualism and artistic impulsivity. Portrayed as inattentive and dismissive of her own family, Lisa becomes fascinated with five-year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak), who composes poetry that puts hers to shame.
Based on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid, this remake fails to deliver the same humanistic blessing on its protagonist. Lisa decides to appropriate Jimmy’s poetry as her own, never justifying her plagiarism. Compensating for her own lack of talent, Gyllenhaal’s character is too weak to be a convincingly obsessive poetaster raising criminal suspicions as she oversteps social and institutional boundaries to be in control of Jimmy.
What is conceived as a social criticism on the role of art in a materialistic society remains strictly apathetic. Unlike Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016), a splendid film about ‘bad’ poetry, The Kindergarten Teacher is an anti-poetic technical checklist, its cinematography and dialogues exceptionally monotonous. Yet, the pleasing compositions that occasionally puncture its bleakness of medium-shots and by-the-book camerawork usually represent the discrepancy between teacher and pupil: be it in height, or metaphorically in gift.
Maggie Gyllenhaal animates this perturbed woman, who alienates herself from her family and has no friends, but only to avoid responsibility as the narrative reaches its peak. Failing to take a moral stance on plagiarism, The Kindergarten Teacher leaves an aftertaste that is both sour and half-baked.