James H. F. Lloyd takes a look at Sara Colangelo’s latest film, The Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name.
The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) directed by Sara Colangelo is an uncomfortable watch, and yet it resonates. It’s a psychological drama and thriller, but also explores ideas around creativity in an indifferent society, and the importance of our relationship to it.
Sara Colangelo’s film is a close remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film of the same name, the main difference is its setting in New York. The story follows Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a melancholic failed poet turned nursery teacher. Her marriage has long left romance behind and her kids have lost their childish curiosity. She teaches, goes home, and attends an evening poetry class. The class gives her a small flicker of the creativity she yearns for, but her poetry receives little praise. They are flat somehow. “My teacher said I need to put more of myself into my work,” she laments, disappointed in herself.
This changes when she hears her five-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) recite one of his poems. It’s surreal and emotive, and Lisa immediately recognises his natural talent. Nobody else around Jimmy sees his ability. His babysitter thinks he’s a “weirdo,” his dad too busy with work, his mom far away in Miami. Lisa makes it her purpose to preserve and nourish Jimmy’s talent, something she believes will be erased by a system that neglects creativity.
But the relationship between poet and scribe becomes more and more uncomfortable. Lisa pretends Jimmy’s poem is hers at poetry class. It’s rapturously received, Lisa feeling the brief glow of success, spurring her on to become more involved in Jimmy’s life. She separates him from class and demands he tell her when a poem arrives, becoming increasingly more controlling and manipulative toward Jimmy and those around him. She convinces herself that it’s all to preserve his talent, neglects her own family in the process and feeds off his success. The brilliant acting of Maggie Gyllenhaal brings a creepy and latent sensuality to the relationship, whispering in his ear, isolating him, kissing his hair. It’s almost like she is trying to woo a five-year-old child.
It’s so uncomfortable to watch, and yet Colangelo’s film perfectly balances your empathy and your outrage, tip-toeing a delicate line between right and wrong. Is she right to go to such extreme lengths to preserve his creativity? Is that really her motive? By the end, both Lisa and Jimmy are doubtful. You struggle to condone her actions. Creativity numbing society is wrong, but that doesn’t make her actions right.
But Jimmy is drawn to Lisa too. Jimmy barely seems to exist outside of his poems which survive only through her writing them down. Barely a word escapes from him, the other characters are indifferent towards him. You only see Jimmy from Lisa’s perspective, as though he would be invisible without her. The narrative becomes a metaphor for the tenuous relationship between the individual and their creativity, one which can’t exist without the other. Elizabeth Gilbert calls this creativity “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” as is titled her famous TED talk. There is a scene in The Kindergarten Teacher in which, over Lisa’s shoulder, Jimmy begins to pace, entranced by the poem he starts to recite. His poem is surreal, his trancelike recital like the unconscious surfacing. Lisa manically rushes to find a pen and paper, but Jimmy has finished, and she only remembers the last few lines. As in life, the creativity comes spontaneously, when Lisa is not ready for it, vaporising as quickly as it arrived. Lisa asks him to repeat it, but he won’t, just as Gilbert’s Creative Genius won’t obey or be controlled. The end of the poem is:
He has no master
When his master is sleeping
And all his master does is sleep.
The master seems to refer back to a society that numbs creativity. The scene parallels a story Ruth Stone told Elizabeth Gilbert, of racing for a pen and paper before a poem leaves her. As Gilbert says, the ancient Greeks believed in a divine spirit of creativity called daemons, providing artists with their ideas. Jimmy, seen over Lisa’s shoulder, a voice at the back of her head, he appears as her daemon. The loss Lisa feels when the poem is lost to oblivion anyone can empathise with, in this case poets particularly. When she reads Jimmy’s poem to the class, it mirrors the imposter syndrome many creative people feel when their ideas seemingly come from nowhere. Like Ruth Stone, Elizabeth Gilbert and many other writers, Lisa is always afraid she will lose this creativity, manifesting in the inability to control Jimmy. Like Neil Gaiman said in one interview, writers are “terrified the ideas will go away.”
Jimmy seems to voice Lisa’s suppressed emotions through his poetry too, as though he is a direct outlet for her unconscious. Lisa’s sexuality is hinted at continually, through Jimmy and the other characters. When Jimmy finally reveals who the mysterious “Anna” is from his poems, it brings her to floods of tears. It’s as though the root of her unhappiness is discovered, not just to us but to her as well. The consequent loneliness she feels from hiding this secret Jimmy speaks to in a later poem:
Loneliness is still time
Spent with the world
And like the elusive genius, the more Lisa tries to control Jimmy, the further she pushes him away. Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher is a melancholy film about a tragic longing for a youthful creativity. It’s a masterfully executed drama and thriller, but also a meditation on the power of poetry, and the creative genius inside all of us.
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James H.F. Lloyd is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.