Parents and teachers should always hope for the best in their children — an improvement from who they were and who they became. But what if that hope for improvement transforms into an attempt to control every aspect of an individual’s life, making them into the mirror image of what they hoped they could become?
Directed by Sara Colangelo and based on a 2014 Israeli film reframed from a woman’s perspective rather a man’s, “The Kindergarten Teacher” tells the story of a teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who becomes obsessed with the talent she sees in one of her students. As an aspiring yet failing poet, Spinelli feels unfulfilled in her life, clinging to lingering hopes of intellectual prowess and artistic ingenuity in her children. After hearing one of her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak) recite his own poetry while waiting for his babysitter, she longs to protect him from the cold reaches of the world. Spinelli takes him under her wing, teaching him about poetic perspective and presentational attributes, while insisting on writing down every poem he says. She also pretends his poems are hers in her poetry class, attempting to uncover society’s distinction between good and bad poetry that she herself cannot figure out.
This fascination quickly turns to an obsession when Spinelli agrees to take care of Jimmy after school, even sneaking him to Manhattan to recite poetry in front of publishers and notable poetic individuals. Her protection of his artistic talents goes too far when she decides to kidnap him, controlling the curation of his skills and his own future.
Shockingly, Spinelli is one of the most relatable characters in the film, a dreamer who continually hopes for more, yet is beaten down by the relentless, cut-throat nature of life. The viewer struggles with their conflicting emotions, empathizing with Spinelli’s difficulties but alarmed by the extremity of her behavior. Her actions are consumed by a fear of letting go of long-beloved dreams, leading to her engaging in risky behavior. What is even more compelling about her character is that her poetry is actually beautifully written, yet society has decided it is inadequate, alluding to a greater question about who gets to decide the value of art. And once she finds this boy who seems understand her, she clings to it, ultimately destroying her life for it.
In a recent interview on the movie, Gyllenhaal brings up this idea of “hunger" — of being hungry for authentic human connection. Spinelli molds Jimmy into a savior figure, who fulfills her dream of what she could have been. In him, she can see a figure of how she wished society treated her and the success she craves. This is not the story of a prodigy child, but the story of a culturally starved woman, a tragic reality for contemporary society. And ultimately, she is driven crazy by this hunger.
“And instead of the way it is supposed to go where a grownup feeds a child … what happens instead is she’s sucking off of him," Gyllenhaal said in the interview.
Jimmy is the means for her to have the life she always wanted, as a child who has not been exposed to the world. He becomes her second chance, allowing for her to mentally sculpt his poetry into exactly what she needs to be whole.
And what better way to analyze the impact of American culture than through the mind of an immigrant child, the epitome of innocence experiencing this society for the first time, and a worn-down woman, painfully aware of the difficulties that lie ahead in a materialistic culture? This choice was an intentional one by director Sara Colangelo, who juxtaposes the blissful innocence of Jimmy with the tragic knowledge of his teacher.
The last scene of the movie is with Jimmy in a police car, about to be returned to his dad. He says “I have a poem,” a statement that is completely ignored by those around him. Instantly, Spinelli’s prophecy is fulfilled, proving the existence of the divide between mainstream culture and the art world. This scene foreshadows that his life could potentially be simply a recreation of Spinelli’s life, regardless of his intellectual and artistic talent.
"Kindergarten Teacher" emphasizes is the effect society has on the mind of an artist. People are products of their experiences, absorbing the cultural values that surround them. And sometimes those group values come into conflict with their personal interests: They individuals become lost and hopeless, even driven to desperate means to fulfill their desires. The film embodies this universal struggle, a hunger endlessly seeking satisfaction and the extreme consequences of cultural starvation.
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