Sundance 2018: Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher

On Film / The Daily — Jan 21, 2018

“Nadiv Lapid’s Hebrew-language The Kindergarten Teacher was one of the more unshakable films of 2015, with its wonderfully inscrutable nature,” begins Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian. “One of the most important things that writer-director Sara Colangelo has done in her American remake is keep the central mystery intact. There is a list of small changes, some tweaks to the characters, a few added jokes, but this is very much the same movie told a second time. Is that necessary? Sure, why the hell not, especially when either version is so great. Moreover, it’s a chance to see Maggie Gyllenhaal give one of the best performances of her career.”

“Lisa (Gyllenhaal) has taught kindergarten for twenty years, finding ample satisfaction in being around children,” writes Tim Grierson, setting it up in Screen. “This enjoyment may partly be a response to the fact that her own kids, who are in their teens, no longer have much use for their overbearing mother. Then one day, she’s entranced by Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a boy who seems to be a poetry prodigy. Convinced Jimmy needs a champion to reach his artistic potential, Lisa starts insinuating herself more and more into his life.”

This “story of a woman’s manic quest for a vicarious life of art and passion could easily be read as a tale of bored middle-aged hysteria,” grants Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “But Lisa’s drive is more than biological; it’s intellectual and emotional, and that’s what keeps what often risks becoming camp madness in an identifiably human place—almost all the way to the end.”

“Considering that the welfare and stability of a pint-sized kid are at stake, the degree to which humor factors in is remarkable,” notes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Even as Lisa goes completely rogue, and the suspenseful thriller element is fortified, the tonal mix of searing melancholy and danger is tempered with playful notes.”

“The equivocation with which Colangelo presents Lisa’s motivations and actions can’t help but draw us in,” writes Dennis Harvey for Variety. “The lack of any real resolution in terms of psychological insight, however, leaves this a movie whose glass is half empty—maybe it’s just not possible to have a story about a five-year-old’s de facto stalker that isn’t sure what it (or we) should think about the matter.”

“Brilliant work by costume designer Vanessa Porter, who gives Lisa a regality through slinky, shabby chic dresses and necklaces that she knows are wasted on a schoolyard, and a beautiful, unsettling classical score from Asher Goldschmidt, add to a film that’s elegance brings out just how out of line its main character has gotten,” writes Stephen Saito.

“I felt that I could give the story a completely new spin and really anchor it in a woman’s point of view,” Colangelo tells Women and Hollywood. “And I felt strongly that there was an opportunity to talk about the value and space we give art in the United States, as well as complicated issues such as authorship, genius, and mediocrity.”

Update, 1/22: “The smartest decision both Colangelo and Gyllenhall make is to not overplay Lisa’s fixation,” finds Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist. “Gyllenhaal only slight hints of potential cracks to Lisa’s passionate veneer.”

Updates, 1/25: “A subplot finds Lisa taking a continuing education poetry class and impressing her teacher (Gael García Bernal) with Jimmy’s poems, and it’s one of the few places where the narrative feels a bit too obvious in steering Lisa’s behavior into old-fashioned mid-life crisis,” finds Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly. “While the concept ultimately takes some darker turns, Colangelo builds a psychology that sells them all, while also poking at an American culture on such auto-pilot that we don’t know how to deal with anything truly extraordinary. Lisa might be a little bit crazy, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.”

At the Film Stage, Dan Mecca gives The Kindergarten Teacher a C+.

For Film Comment, April Wolfe talks with Colangelo: “Nadav’s version is about masculinity and art in a country at war and the challenges of that. And his version was autobiographical—he was a child poet—so the child character has a lot of agency, and the camera is low, at his POV. I wanted to get into the teacher’s head more, get into her psyche and put her on planet Earth with a little more agency and boldness.”

Update, 1/27: IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “While Colangelo sorely lacks Lapid’s autobiographical insight and his formal virtuosity (the Little Accidents director opting for a straightforward approach that strips this version of the original’s roving and intimate camerawork), she understands every inch of Lisa’s situation, and mines a fiercely brilliant turn from Maggie Gyllenhaal.”

Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that The Kindergarten Teacher “becomes one of those films where there’s no doubt something terrible is going to happen; it just becomes a matter of what, and when. The pieces don’t all snap into place, but the skill and bravado of that Gyllenhaal performance keeps the picture humming.”

Update, 1/31: At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore finds that The Kindergarten Teacher “keeps us on a knife's edge regarding Lisa's motivations, and what combination of sincere and selfish is driving her to act out. Gyllenhaal keeps the character human while refusing to soften her increasingly outlandish behavior in a career-great performance.”

Update, 2/7: For RogerEbert.com, Monica Castillo talks with Colangelo about “how she shaped the main character with Maggie Gyllenhaal and what she hopes is in store for women in Hollywood after #MeToo.”

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