The 26th annual Hampton International Film Festival kicked off this Thursday evening, although I guess you could say it started Wednesday night for me, as I was lucky enough to preview a film set to show here on Sunday and Monday. Rory Kennedy’s “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” (review here) adds to the plethora of films and television shows that focus on space travel that we seem to have been recently bombarded with. I’m not complaining, mind you. They all seem to be one terrific viewing after another, including Kennedy’s ode to NASA. Her doc will play the aforementioned screenings here in HIFF before being released to television audiences on October 13th on the Discovery Channel.
I took the flight from Cleveland to LaGuardia Airport in New York City very early Thursday morning. Perhaps getting up at 3 AM for a 6 AM flight was a little unnecessary, given the late start time to today’s festivities, but I figured arriving early would allow me the day to tour the quaint town of East Hampton and get my bearings straight before the festival kicked off. The plan is to see as many films over the four-day span as possible and to do so, I knew I would have to know my way around.
And so it went that the first day was a simple one for screenings, just a singular showing for me, in fact. Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in the titular role, was HIFF’s opening night selection. The actress was in attendance alongside her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard, and Colangelo. Prior to their red-carpet arrival, man-of-the-hour Alan Alda and co-chairman of the board, Alec Baldwin, made an appearance. Baldwin was on hand to present Alda with the second annual Dick Cavett Artistic Champion Award. In an instance of fortuitous timing, it was announced earlier today that Alda would be the recipient of another honor: the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award, which will be handed out at their next ceremony in January.
Netflix has made a strong presence this year with some pretty impressive films in their stable including Paul Greengrass’ “22 July,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and now, Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher.”
Gyllenhaal stars as Lisa Spinelli, a mother, and teacher on the verge of a midlife crisis. Aside from teaching five and six-year-old children during the day, at night Spinelli is taking a continuing education course on writing poetry. It is something she is not necessarily great at, as her teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) is quick to point out, but something she remains persistent with to combat her fear that the world is losing its focus and interest on art – something she sees as a decaying curiosity in her own children. When she discovers that one of her students, five-and-a-half-year-old Jimmy Roy (adorably and adeptly played by Parker Sevak, who was also here to help promote the film), is a poetic child prodigy, she becomes consumed with making sure his talents are not smothered out.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” concentrates on the disappointments Spinelli faces as a mother, wife, teacher, and failed artist. Her children lack the creativity she has tried to nurture in them, and that she is incapable of. These two obstacles lead to her craving the chance to develop Jimmy on her own, a cathartic and redeeming opportunity at a second chance in both regards. Terrified that his talents will go to waste in a world that no longer seems to be cultivating artistic craftsmanship, Spinelli makes a decision that will impact everyone involved.
Gyllenhaal gives a strong performance as the disheartened teacher trying to do what’s best for her student, balancing Spinelli’s meaningful intent with the scent of something that just feels off-base. While “The Kindergarten Teacher” often feels peculiar and disquieting, it accomplishes a strong, topical memorandum on how our society handles art, and what becomes of the artist if no one is listening.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is distributed by Netflix and opens in theaters on October 12th.
GRADE for “The Kindergarten Teacher” – (★★★)
Day two agenda: If I am able to figure out how to get to Sag Harbor, I will be checking out Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” Sweden’s official entry into the Foreign Language Oscar race “Borders,” and Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” Stay tuned.