The Kindergarten Teacher

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in The Kindergarten Teacher - When a kindergarten teacher discovers one of her five-year-olds is a prodigy, she becomes fascinated with the boy, ultimately risking her family and freedom to nurture his talent.
"For anyone who has experienced the obsessive attentions of a teacher, this makes for uncomfortable viewing." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Why do people choose to become teachers? It's not the money and, despite what some people think, it's not the hours - teachers have to do a lot of work outside the classroom. 80% of those who choose this profession give, as their main reason, the fact that it lets them make a difference in children's lives. It's natural to become excited about children's talents and enjoy watching them develop; thrilling, often, to be able to help with that. But sometimes teachers can become too attached to particular children and end up doing damage as a result.

Sweet, lively and obviously dedicated to her job, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Lisa seems like the sort of primary school teacher anyone would be grateful for. Yet right from the start of this film, it's obvious that something is not right about the way she interacts with young pupil Jimmy (Parker Sevak). Jimmy is just five but he has a way with words. He enjoys composing poems even before he's told that's what they are. It's the sort of natural talent that Lisa has always longed to possess, and when she looks at Jimmy she sees everything she wanted to be. She also sees somebody who could lose his ability if not supported, protected, presented with opportunities. So she goes out of her way to help. But where does helping become controlling? And regardless of what Jimmy's capable of, shouldn't she be thinking first of what he actually wants?

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For anyone who has experienced the obsessive attentions of a teacher, this makes for uncomfortable viewing. Lisa isn't sexually abusing Jimmy but the film makes the point that there are many ways a child can be harmed. Increasingly cut off from the other things he enjoys in life and the people he loves, Jimmy knows something is wrong but struggles to articulate it. He likes Lisa and wants to please her. When she expects him to behave like a miniature adult, he does his best to go along with it, but it's plain that he's struggling to keep his head above water. Meanwhile, she behaves in an increasingly erratic manner, passing off some of his work as her own in order to impress handsome poetry class tutor simon (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal). The intensity of her response to challenges makes one begin to fear for the child's safety.

Gyllenhaal is excellent in the central role but the script is heavy handed and layers it on too thick from the start, telling us everything rather than letting her show it. Whilst the film is still impressive, there's a real sense of wasted potential. Young Sevak, meanwhile, is brilliant, utterly fresh and natural. The awkward question that inevitably nags at the viewer concerns how much pressure he had to deal with to enable this story to be told. Much of our understanding of what is happening to Jimmy comes from what is played out on his face. He's very good at reminding adults what it's like to be five and just how overwhelming the world can be at that stage in life, even without being expected to take on responsibility for adults' problems.

Overplayed though it is, this is an emotionally intelligent film with a lot to recommend it.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2018
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When a kindergarten teacher discovers one of her five-year-olds is a prodigy, she becomes fascinated with the boy, ultimately risking her family and freedom to nurture his talent.


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