In the first few minutes of Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, we are acquainted with flowing snatches of Lisa Spinelli’s (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) day-to-day life – her soft silhouette within the sky-blue walls of a classroom, on the green plastic seats of a ferry scratching away at a notebook, and finally against the greyish haze of an adult creative writing class. The cool-toned, delicate color scheme brings an initial feeling of calm, but on watching back, there seems to be an inherent dullness present somewhere, and the poignant and shrill symphony playing against these mundane scenarios is somewhat haunting, hinting at an unseen hunger.
Admiration flickers in Lisa’s eyes as she gazes at her creative writing teacher, an earnest and handsome poet, as he encourages the class to share their work aloud, playfully reminding them that they should be comfortable in their voice after attending four weeks of the course. He tentatively nods to Lisa when calling upon her, having forgotten her name, which seems an insignificant detail but is perhaps suggestive of her ordinariness, her ability to dwindle into the background of any space she occupies. She draws a sharp breath inward before reading and the brief, vulnerable moment between a creation being only yours and then the world’s is unmistakable before the camera abruptly cuts to black.
Of course, it isn’t anyone’s first instinct to consider Lisa’s ordinariness a fatal flaw – she leads a fine life in Staten Island with a doting husband and teenage children, and is a kindergarten teacher who is evidently good at her job. The setting of the kindergarten class is a kingdom of its own, thick with nostalgia and song and curiosity, with Lisa presented as its tender but firm nurturer.
Colangelo crafts a visual story that isolates kindergarten as a time of untethered creation in our lives; whether through the pleasing chaos of finger-painting or spontaneous song-circles, there’s something pure and unabashed about our relationship with art at this age that is later lost, and only a handful of us ever find it again, but maybe not even in its full-fledged form. Perhaps this is what Lisa is thinking when she overhears the quiet assembling of a poem by a boy in her class, Jimmy Roy (played by Parker Sevak), and is immediately bewitched.
At first, her intention to become a mentor is good-natured, and even a little pitiable since she’s guided by the implicit belief that if unable to produce anything remarkable herself she can at least be a medium for Jimmy’s poetry.
Jimmy carefully laces words together while pacing up and down, his tiny body completely drawn into what looks like a sacred ritual. His poetry bears a startling wisdom in its observation, along with a sad and creeping ache that is beyond his years – so tangible that it is almost disturbing. This is where Lisa’s restless dissatisfaction with her own writing, which is thought of as ‘derivative’ by her creative writing peers, begins to unravel on itself.
She considers Jimmy a prodigy, and soon begins to cling onto his every word and movement in an attempt to wring out new poetry from him. At first, her intention to become a mentor is good-natured and even a little pitiable since she’s guided by the implicit belief that if unable to produce anything remarkable herself, she can at least be a medium for Jimmy’s poetry – maybe that could be the mark she’d leave on the artistic world.
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But Lisa’s intrinsic feeling of mediocrity causes her to undergo a rocky devolution from a questionable protagonist to an anti-heroine, as she begins exploiting Jimmy’s talent in order to live vicariously through him. The film pulses through a precarious ebb and flow, as the soft and serene, floral-skirt wearing Lisa Spinelli we know begins to decline into worrying compulsion.
I think the film’s most exciting detail is feeling the collaboration between the glitzy, larger-than-life feel of Hollywood and humble, contemporary poets. Jimmy’s poems are contributions of two young poets of color, Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbar. Both poets whittled down their pieces, ridding them of syntax that would be improbable for a five-year-old to grasp, but preserved their strikingly observant imagery and emotional depth. As a frequent reader and admirer of Vuong, his poetry wearing its most bare and raw skin is a sublime fit for the mind of a prodigious child, as his pieces quietly hum an existential thirst, and carry a rusted-over sadness.
Lisa’s internal conflict becomes less about protecting this ‘fragile’ gift of artistic ability, and more about convincing the world, and more importantly her own self, that she can be more.
Watching the poetry come into being onscreen is almost cathartic – Parker Sevak masterfully emulates the emotional-laborious process of birthing art. Hopefully, The Kindergarten Teacher is a foreshadowing for more Hollywood productions working with smaller artists in the future. Like Akbar reflects, “It’s not often that a poet gets to see their words on a movie theater screen…so much of being a poet is very isolating, sitting in your pajamas over a notebook for 14 hours on end, so it’s cool to get to do something with poetry that’s very collaborative.”
However, Colangelo’s storyline isn’t free of scrutiny – many have questioned the lack of acknowledgment of racial dynamics and power imbalance within the movie. After all, the plot does boil down to a white woman capitalizing on a boy of color’s natural talent.
When our sympathy for Lisa Spinelli and her self-deprecating desire to be, or at least feel impressive wears off, what should we make of the situation? Jimmy’s narrative soon takes a backseat in the shadow of Spinelli’s craving to be noticed, to no longer be a spectator in her own life. Her internal conflict becomes less about protecting this ‘fragile’ gift of artistic ability, and more about convincing the world, and more importantly her own self, that she can be more.
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I’d like to think this was Colangelo’s intention to comment on how vulnerable artistic inclination is in the hands of the education system and general society – before it can take on any concrete shape, it is buried. There’s something deeply wounding about seeing Gyllenhaal’s character being the only one to recognise and feed Jimmy’s talent, but then squander it away through self-absorption. Any faith held in her is violently crushed, and we are suddenly back to where we began: a young boy with so much greatness to give, and no one to receive it.
Featured Image Source: Merlin