There is nothing Maggie Gyllenhaal cannot do when she inhabits a character. She is an enchantress extraordinaire, her combo of intelligence, vulnerability & deep empathy opening up the most complex of people to the eye of the beholder, smoothing the roughest edges, offering dignity to the fallen and the shamed.
In Sara Colangelo‘s gutsy, bruising, brilliant indie The Kindergarten Teacher, an emotionally sophisticated, viscerally disturbing take on a woman on the edge, Gyllenhaal is almost in every frame, possessing the space like a ghost of a person she has once been. Intellectually starved, grasping for glimmers of inspiration in the prosaic landscape of her days, she plays Lisa, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher, married, with three teenage children, attending poetry classes with her upbeat, charming tutor (Gael García Bernal, subtly provocative), producing nothing that would move him. Unable to breathe in a creative spirit of her own, she develops an artistic obsession with five-year-old Jimmy (Parker Sevak, a miracle), her student, a genius little poet from a broken family, appropriating his work, yet attempting to protect his stunning, heartbreaking talent and innocence, at all costs. Almost tragically achieving the complete opposite.
The story weaves a web so soft and intricate, so feminine and fine, that when we start to feel a terrible unease with Lisa’s choices, it almost seems too late to look back. This point of view, rare to see in film, gives us glimpses of an inner universe about to implode in slow motion, studying an ancient curse of the female condition, an inherited bondage of the most devious kind, one that unresolved leads to a special kind of parasitism – a living through the creative world of another, with ferocious intensity of reclaiming one’s own.
What The Kindergarten Teacher discloses is an everyday occurrence brought to the boil. Be it with a partner, a child, or a prodigy. It also, masterfully, allow us an unspoken understanding of the ephemeral nature of artistic expression, what it requires as nurture, how it can never be tamed, and all the ways it can be lost.