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REVIEW: The Kindergarten Teacher compellingly does its haunting homework for an off-kilter pre-school educator and her mini-sized prized pupil

Frank Ochieng
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REVIEW: The Kindergarten Teacher compellingly does its haunting homework for an off-kilter pre-school educator and her mini-sized prized pupil

The psychological multi-layered drama The Kindergarten Teacher definitely makes the grade as a winningly uncomfortable and compelling observation of a disillusioned middle-aged woman stuck in an artistic and emotional rut only to discover her opportunistic escape through the perceived brilliance of a talented tot.

Writer-director Sara Colangelo's ("Little Accidents") sophomore cinematic effort is an unnerving, slow burn of a feature that methodically examines the gradual malaise of an unfulfilled woman quietly tortured personally and professionally. The fine line between obsession and mentored guidance is explored with haunting conflict. Colangelo's transfixing profile of confined womanhood attached to surfacing pressure and gentle madness is definitely a piece of hallucinatory homework worth tackling in the unflinching The Kindergarten Teacher. 

Based on filmmaker Nadav Lapid's 2014 Israeli/French predecessor by the same name (original title "Haganenet"), Colangelo's dark and revealing The Kindergarten Teacher features one of Hollywood's most gifted yet underrated talents in Maggie Gyllenhaal as 40-something Lisa Spinelli, a New York-based kindergarten teacher who has been in the classroom almost half her life schooling youngsters to the point of merely going through the motions. Lisa wants to be challenged beyond the unruly youngsters and concentrate on her longtime passion for poetry. The constraints of her teaching job are taking a noticeable toll on her artistic psyche. Lisa is a poet...at least this is what drives her heart, spirit, and soul anyway. 

The classroom is not the only venue where Lisa feels her terminable stagnation pressing against her uneventful chest. At home, she must contend with an indifferent heavyset hubby (Michael Churnus) and their two teenage offspring (Sam Jules and Daisy Tahan) that are off in their own selfish world. So naturally, the domestic boredom overtakes Lisa and she is even more eager to pursue the tranquility of her path for poetry--the answer for her elusive salvation. The solution: Lisa ends up enrolling in an adult education writing course en route to realizing her dream for prose poetry. 

Unfortunately, Lisa's immense love and appreciation for poetry do not match her capability for conquering this artistic craft. Lisa's handsome class instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal) has disdain for her classroom poetic inabilities despite his affectionate vibes aimed at her attention. Soon, Lisa becomes inspired when she is shocked to learn that one of her pupils in Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) has an uncanny gift for reciting refined verses that are strikingly poetic for a youngster his age. She is immediately intrigued by Jimmy's poetic prowess. Could Lisa possibly have a pre-school prodigy poet at her disposal? Can Jimmy be the convenient ticket to her own poetic ambitions?

Amazed by her precocious student Jimmy, Lisa decides to pass along the talented tot's poem as her own work in class. Naturally, the reception to the "borrowed" written work is praise-worthy by the flirtatious instructor. Now Lisa is really convinced as to what a creative goldmine Jimmy is with his instinctive, vibrant artistry. Hence, this so-called boy genius is someone that Lisa can nurture to both their advantages. However, becoming the crafty kid's hands-on mentor is starting to affect those close to the capable child. Lisa desires complete control of the quiet Jimmy's masterful mindset but faces a constant roadblock courtesy of her star student's divorced father whose denial of countless participatory poetry readings in Manhattan for his overwhelmed son presents a difficulty for the obsessive kindergarten teacher to digest. 

Indeed, Lisa Spinelli is a pariah and is soon dismissed from the boundaries of reality. For her, Jimmy is the mysterious key to the fountain of poetic purity because he in so many ways exemplifies youth and innocence in all its undefined glory. Lisa's unbalanced behavior for tapping into this impressionable youth is both scary and curious. Skillfully, Colangelo allows Lisa's erratic motivations to present a lost woman coming undone in the name of a mental meltdown underlining personalized broken expectations. The embedded creepiness that persists in The Kindergarten Teacher is soundly suggestive because we are witnessing a wounded grown woman's desperation through the inherent resourcefulness of a well-advanced child. Theoretically, Lisa is starving for her art but in sinister ways that are corrosive and unimaginable. 

Gyllenhaal, an adventurous actress whose few unconventional roles have benefited her big-screen career, is exceptionally riveting as the tormented teacher--sympathetic and cynical--looking for artistic purpose and prominence beyond her bored, limited grasp. Gyllenhaal deserves an Oscar nod for a flawed woman tiptoeing in the suspenseful circle of indescribable scrutiny. In notable albeit overlooked films such as Secretary, Sherrybaby, Frank, and Donnie Darko Gyllenhaal has always managed to combine jeopardized free spirits with flawed humanity. Remarkably, Gyllenhaal's Lisa Spinelli is the damaged component in The Kindergarten Teacher that needs real schooling in how she disturbingly copes with the off-the-wall dilemma of her stillborn alienation. 

The art of detachment in The Kindergarten Teacher is poetic justice for a probing look at wayward intelligence and inspiration tapping at dissatisfaction's door. 

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Maggie GyllenhaalNew Yorkobsessionprodigyteacher/studentThe Kindergarten Teacher

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