Lisa Spinelli loves small children — their innocence, their enthusiasm, above all their promise. But The Kindergarten Teacher's protagonist, achingly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, knows that most 5-year-olds don't grow up to be particularly creative or even interesting. Exhibit A: herself.
This keenly excruciating drama, a faithful remake of an Israeli film of the same name, opens aptly in a New York City classroom. But it's not the one where Lisa works everyday. Once a week, she attends a continuing-education poetry class where she tries to impress her fellow students and her unnamed teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal), who's altogether too glamorous for night school. Her efforts go unappreciated.
Things are much the same at home, where Lisa tries out a new haiku on her stolid husband (Michael Chernus). She doesn't even bother with her two teenagers (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules), who have turned out, well, OK.
Lisa does have a kindred spirit, or at least so she thinks after one of her charges goes into a sort of trance and recites a few brief lines. "Was that a poem?" asks Lisa, who's surprised, pleased, and maybe a little jealous. Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) doesn't answer, so Lisa must decide for herself.
Jimmy's utterance seems to be a love lyric, impressionistic and transcendental. It ends with an invocation of God, which may or may not mean something. Jimmy won't say, and his South Asian heritage doesn't seem to be significant. His dad runs a nightclub, not a temple or a mosque.
Soon, Lisa is instructing Jimmy's neglectful nanny (Rosa Salazar) to transcribe any pearls the boy might utter. Impulsively, she begins to offer his verse to her class as her own work. The reaction is favorable, and her teacher becomes much more interested in his pupil.
There's an erotic charge between Lisa and her instructor, and also between her and Jimmy. She never touches the boy inappropriately, and there's no hint that she ever would. But we can see the disappointment on her face when she learns that Jimmy's romantic ode is not about her.
As the teacher's obsession with her student grows, she does quite a few things she shouldn't. One of her motivations is to allay her disappointment in herself and her utterly conventional kids. Just as much, though, she wants to nurture Jimmy and celebrate his gift. She doesn't make the situation any better when she decides to reveal Jimmy as the author of the poems she's been reading in class. But her intention is sincere.
Writer-director Sarah Colangelo's best move was to cast Gyllenhaal, who captures Lisa's conflicted emotions in subtle gestures and expressions, never overplaying. The actress excels in the final sequence, in which Lisa acknowledges her failure while maintaining the composure and helpfulness of an experienced kindergarten teacher.
Colangelo seems to take her cues from the lead performance, never allowing the movie's tone to become panicky. The piano-based score becomes only slightly more agitated as the story unfolds, and Lisa and Jimmy's final lines — a minute or so apart — are delivered quietly and to the smallest possible audiences.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a tragedy in the classical sense, a tale of a downfall that's entirely the result of its heroine's character. The story's climax is not violent or shocking, yet devastating all the same. If Lisa's instincts are wrong, her actions are awkwardly, poignantly believable. She means to save Jimmy, herself, and maybe an entire tranquilized society.