Sundance Review: Maggie Gyllenhaal Gives in to Quiet Desperation in ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

The Kindergarten Teacher | Maggie Gyllenhaal

Sundance Film Festival: As the world becomes increasingly obsessed with on demand entertainment, is there a place for poetry and art? This is a question that drives Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Lisa Spinelli in the new film, “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

The film opens on Lisa, alone in her classroom at the end of another day. She gathers her things and heads to the Staten Island Ferry to attend a weekly poetry class in Lower Manhattan. It is the only bright spot in what has become a mundane life. Her husband is a loving source of stability that leaves her bored. Her teenage children are far more interested in friends than their parents. When Lisa overhears one of her students reciting a moving poem, she becomes convinced he is a gifted poet and becomes obsessed with mentoring and guiding his talent.

If this is where it stopped, this would be yet another story of an inspiring teacher who changed a student’s life. But that’s not where the story ends. Instead, Lisa’s obsession grows more and more strange, driving her to desperation. She may believe she is mentoring young Jimmy (Parker Sevak), but in reality, she is using him to give meaning to her life. She makes a series of increasingly bad decisions, convincing herself she’s doing the right thing.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a magnificent performance as Lisa. She is fully committed to the part, portraying a woman searching for beauty in a dreary existence. While Lisa may be unraveling internally, Gyllenhaal fully embraces a woman who believes she’s still keeping herself together.

Parker Sevak makes his debut in this film. He is adorable and sweet, and is up to the challenge of acting alongside an Academy Award nominee.

The supporting cast is all used sparingly, but each is well placed. Bernal as a continuing education teacher and Ajay Naidu as Jimmy’s busy and important father flit in and out of the story where they are needed, never outstaying their welcome. Michael Chernus plays Lisa’s husband. He is a sweet and caring man who completely misses his wife’s downward spiral. Rosa Salazar is a stand out while Anna Baryshnikov, Sam Jules, and Daisy Tahan are all serviceable.

“The Kindergarten Teacher” was written and directed by Sara Colangelo. Her first film, “Little Accidents” also premiered at Sundance in 2014. She is a director with a clear vision, giving the film a bit of grittiness and mess in a way that feels intentional. She draws out a great performance from her young child star. And she takes great care with Lisa, presenting the story from her perspective. But she also makes it clear to the audience that this is a woman who is coming apart. She builds the narrative to a conclusion that is at once open-ended and also satisfying.

“The Kindergarten Teacher” is looking for distribution.

GRADE: (★★★1/2)