In a society where screens of various sizes vie for our attention, often to the extent that we miss the world behind them, it could be argued that we've lost fragments of an otherwise inherent human tendency to appreciate the beauty of words, nature, creativity and expression. Sara Colangelo's 2018 drama The Kindergarten Teacher is a simple cautionary tale at its heart, but one that crackles and simmers dangerously, constantly threatening to boil over. It's a masterful example of a tightly-wound domestic psychological thriller at times, completely devoid of violence, physical harm, supernatural nemeses or psychotic cannibals, but with all the tension of a film that would normally lean on all of the above. It's the night-vision scene from Silence of the Lambs, but in broad daylight and with poetry instead of the gun.
Lisa, Maggie Gyllenhaal's titular early childhood educator, is impossibly bad at concealing her contempt for people who would rather do almost anything than walk around holding a notebook to jot down poetic observations about butterflies. She's in a perfectly pleasant, boring marriage to a perfectly pleasant, boring man with predictably rebellious teenage children, who are both entirely too busy doing things that their parents would rather they weren't to realise how good their lives already are. Lisa attends an evening poetry class to quench the artistic and creative yearnings that aren't fed in any other area of her life, but she's really just not very good at it. We sympathise that she is struggling to find contentment in the one thing she seems to be doing for herself. We watch her teach her class - she's good. But she's used those worksheets for years.
One day, amidst her despondent rut, she witnesses one of her precocious charges, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), spontaneously reciting profound poetry of his own composition. She immediately considers it a moral imperative to protect, nurture and promote his abilities, in much the same way that any good kindergarten teacher might do. However, Lisa is not any good kindergarten teacher and her, ahem, pedagogy becomes increasingly unhealthy. Even her motivation, which initially appears sincere, is stained with her own self-interest. (We learn this in an unexpected moment that appears in a totally different context in the trailer.) As Lisa becomes more certain that she is helping craft another Mozart, her grip on reality (let alone appropriate professional conduct, responsibility and accountability) slackens. As the stakes continue to rise, so does our incredulity that this seemingly erudite woman would become incrementally more willing to endanger an innocence she is sworn to protect. Et voilà: tension.
Admittedly, I've not seen a great deal of Gyllenhaal's work, but surely this one of the best performances she's ever given. She gives an unbelievable amount of insight with the tiniest of facial expressions and somehow even carries herself with the posture of someone who knows they have the moral high-ground. In the film's denouement, lasting only a matter of a few minutes, she goes one step further than simply acting in a way that would be appropriate for the situation. It was like I was literally watching a watershed moment in a real human's life, in-person. A heightened approach would have been easy, but Gyllenhaal's take was arguably perfect.
While anybody who has ever heard of children will find this an unsettling film to watch, those with a background in education or working/living with children will find their unease amplified. I don't think it's ruining anything to say that The Kindergarten Teacher is never exploitative or sensational in a way that the premise might imply, but it skirts close enough to the line to hold the audience in a perpetual state of wariness. The final scene is both immensely satisfying and hugely deflating, but it totally validates the whole experience of watching the film and brings the cautionary tale full circle. To be fair, it doesn't take a great deal to get this guy to cry in a movie, but the last 10 seconds got me good.
While definitely not good source material for a musical, Stephen Sondheim unknowingly summarised it best:
"Careful the things you say. Children will listen."
The Kindergarten Teacher is streaming on Stan now.