Andrew Bloomenthal speaks with writer/director Sara Colangelo about her new film, The Kindergarten Teacher.
In The Kindergarten Teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to have it all—a nice Staten Island home, a loving family, and a job teaching Kindergarten, where she delights in shaping the young minds of tomorrow. But beneath the patina of her gentle existence, lurks a sea of discontent. And baby, there’s a storm coming.
Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, who adapted the script from the same-named 2014 Israeli title, the film opens with Lisa preparing the classroom for another day of storytelling, letter learning, finger painting and nap-taking. But when she overhears five-year-old Jimmy Roy (newcomer Parker Sevak) reciting an improvised poem, she’s instantly floored.
“The sun hits her yellow house. It is almost like a sign from God.”
Those simple words trigger Lisa’s obsessive mission to mentor the boy—whether he wants her to or not. And while her motives may be innocent, her execution tilts towards creepy. Like when she yanks Jimmy from class and brings him into the bathroom, where she stands him up on the windowsill to teach him about perspective. It’s uncomfortable to watch.
To be clear: there’s nothing pedophilic going on. But the optics sure leave a lot to be desired. For instance, Lisa has no qualms about dolling the boy up in a tiny sports jacket and forcing him to perform at a midnight Manhattan poetry slam. And she doesn’t think twice about passing Jimmy’s work off as her own, during her adult poetry class, where she basks in positive feedback for the first time—plagiarism be damned.
As Lisa incrementally blurs the ethical and legal lines, we keep expecting her to come to her senses. But we abandon that hope, after she absconds with the boy to a remote upstate New York lake town, so he can hone his skills—undistracted. The poor kid just wants to go home.
Gyllenhaal, who’s also a producer on the film, relished the opportunity to play such a morally ambiguous character.
“I identified with Lisa’s feelings of creative and intellectual deprivation,” says Gyllenhaal. “She’s looking to feed herself by proceeding down a path that’s really off.”
“Lisa is restless and unfulfilled, and her questionable mission to support Jimmy is an interesting sort of transference for her character,” adds Colangelo, who sat with Script, to tell us more about this slice-of-life story.
Note: Interview has been edited for content and clarity.
What elements of the original film were you determined to retain in your version?
There were a lot of things I wanted to keep in place—certainly a feeling that there’s a disturbing bond between a Kindergarten teacher and her student. But it was fun to craft Lisa’s character, who has the agency to move in such extreme ways. There’s almost a zealousness to her psychology and logic that creates tension.
Speaking of tension, when Jimmy takes the stage at the poetry slam, he takes a dramatic pause before delivering his poem, causing a tense moment of uncertainty—whether he’ll choke or not. Was that your intent?
See, that’s so interesting, because I never planned to introduce tension in that moment. I actually thought it was a pretty matter-of-fact scene. But you’re right—there was some hesitation on his part. Parker was so nervous on that day, because before then, we always had this safe little space in the classroom for him to work in, and then suddenly here he was, in front of an audience of people, doing something performative. So that hesitation came through, in his natural performance. In the script, I always imagined there would be a small beat after he took the stage, before launching into the poem, because I think of things musically. But I knew the story so well, that I probably took it for granted that he would just recite the poem, without choking. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective.
Another interesting element of the film was the lack of Lisa’s back-story. We only know that she wants to write poems, but the work she presents in class is pretty mediocre. In your mind, do you think she’s chasing a futile dream?
We shot a lovely scene of them in Central Park, that was cut, where Lisa tells Jimmy that she was a secretary for many years, and you get the feeling that she might have dropped out of college. And then it’s revealed that she began teaching Kindergarten at a very young age, so there’s a feeling that she didn’t accomplish what she wanted to in life. But regardless of what you think of her poetry, what’s interesting is that the poems she recited in class were actually written by a very well-known published New York poet. So at times, I think her poems were wonderful.
Yes, but her teacher and fellow students seem unimpressed.
And I think that’s a theme of the film in general—that art is subjective. You may find a teacher who thinks your work is awful, but who’s to say?
The Kindergarten Teacher is now playing on Netflix.