Netflix made its presence known at film festivals around the world this past year, producing or landing distribution for many of 2018’s most acclaimed works. At Sundance, the streaming giant acquired distribution rights to The Kindergarten Teacher, which was nominated for the festival’s grand jury prize and earned Sophia Colangelo the award for best direction in the drama category. Last month, Netflix released the film on its streaming site.
The Kindergarten Teacher is an American remake of a 2014 Israeli film directed by Nadav Lapid. Both tell the story of a kindergarten teacher who self-righteously dedicates herself to nurturing the talent of a precocious student with an uncanny gift for composing poetry. Lapid directs the Israeli original with a formal audacity intended to draw attention to itself. Within the first 15 seconds of Lapid’s version, a character conspicuously bumps into the camera filming him, and from then on, the camera functions as an almost conscious agent within the world of the film, equipped with a point of view distinctively its own and a range of movement not necessarily tethered to any character.
Colangelo pursues a more muted style in the new American version. She dresses the film in a palette of icy blues, suggesting a cold, hardened world, but one still able to shimmer with beauty when caught in the right light. Rather than allowing the camera to rove, Colangelo keeps it rigidly trained on her central performer, Maggie Gyllenhaal — barely a frame is absent Gyllenhaal’s presence — and the film is all the better for the restraint. The blues of the backdrop reflect in Gyllenhaal’s eyes and turn them a vibrant turquoise that is otherworldly. Lapid conjures a poetic vision; Colangelo captures a poetic soul.
Gyllenhaal plays the eponymous kindergarten teacher, Lisa Spinelli, who labors to feed the curiosity of her young students, cherishing the joy and spontaneity with which they meet their experiences. But outside of the classroom, she witnesses a world of very different values, primed to undo all that she has worked to cultivate in her pupils. As Lisa tells one sympathetic listener, “Even at 4 or 5, they’re coming into school attached to their phones, talking only about TV shows and video games. It’s a materialistic culture, and it doesn’t support art or language or observation.” When she discovers one student, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), pacing back and forth, dictating poetry from a place of sudden inspiration, she believes she has found a talent “so fragile and so rare” that it must be nourished and protected before it is crushed by the indifference of the world around him.
Lisa latches onto Jimmy with the urgency of an embattled soul, and the film wastes little time in cueing the darker shades of her attachment. Jimmy becomes the depository for all her hopes for the future, for her love of culture and art — the precious life of the imagination under siege, which she believes must be preserved at all costs. Such adult burdens she asks this small child to bear, and Lisa is willing to sacrifice everything under their tremendous weight.
Disappointed and distraught with the world, Lisa turns to delusion, but her genuine moments of clarity and care make it so that she is never an unsympathetic character. Her actions are imbued with heart-wrenching vitality, the earnest struggle of a woman trapped within confines of her own making.
Gyllenhaal masterfully embodies the quavering desperation of her character, simmering just below the surface in moments of both rapture and anguish. With the small muscles of her face and the gentle inflections of her voice, Gyllenhaal marshals the minutiae of her presence as if collecting the frayed fibers of this woman’s being. She commands every moment she’s on the screen, strongly poised as a woman teetering on the brink. There have been few performances this year so penetrating and so persistent. The Academy would do well to take notice.