The Kindergarten Teacher | dir. Sara Colangelo | USA
How do you capture total discontentment? Take a medium-sized rectangular box with dowdy robin’s egg walls. Add to that box a number of windows that do not open. Child-sized table and chair sets. Rinky-dink mobiles. A piss-poor fan. Then, add to this space a woman. She is middle-aged. She wears a midi-length floral skirt and a maroon blazer. She also wears a frown. She lifts the blinds and turns on the fan, then she sits in one of the diminutive chairs. The sigh she lets out rings louder than the fan that seems to operate on full blast. Her name is Lisa. She is the kindergarten teacher.
Based on a 2014 Israeli film by the same name, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher asks (and ultimately answers) what the difference is between action and intention. Lisa is many things, but above all else she is, much to her dismay, ordinary. At least, she perceives herself as ordinary. Perception is key in this film. The gaudy green chairs of the Staten Island Ferry Lisa takes home from work inspire her latest piece for an after-hours poetry class—a pseudo-haiku:
“A dream garden blooms
rose, iris, phlox, but here
a white crocus pierces concrete”
Most of her poetry mates dismiss her poem as “derivative,” as she confesses to her husband over cold leftovers. The next day after kindergarten class, one of her youngsters recites a poem, his own. He paces back and forth, as if in a trance, evoking a mysterious woman named “Anna.” The poem is arguably better than her dream garden poem. There is a depth to it that she had been unable to instill in those before. She reads “Anna” at her next poetry class, where it is met with unexpected praise. And so the film progresses and Lisa continues to pass off this boy’s poems as her own. It is a little secret she keeps to herself—she, the poetry thief. Soon enough, however, Lisa’s somewhat innocuous language-lifting turns into an all-consuming obsession. She begins carting this boy, Jimmy, off during nap time so that they may discuss his identity as a poet. She puts her number in his cellphone and encourages him to call any time he has a poem to share. She ends foreplay with her husband abruptly and without warning after Jimmy calls with a poem. Then she begins calling Jimmy herself. As a counterpoint to Jimmy’s Mozart-like abilities, we learn that Lisa has a mildly contentious relationship with her own children—both high school-aged—at home. She thinks of them as materialistic. Always on their phones. Lacking curiosity in life. What becomes muddled is whether we are supposed to be critical of Lisa’s children as well or of Lisa herself. Perhaps it varies from person to person.
Eventually, Lisa meets Jimmy’s dad (she had only interacted with babysitters in the past). He works at a trendy club and seems to have little to no time to nurture his son’s creative pursuits. So, Lisa convinces him to replace Jimmy’s current babysitter with herself so that she may water this tiny seed. He agrees. To give any more plot points away would be a disservice to the film—the twists and turns of the plot are as worthy of a watch as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s compelling performance.
All Lisa wants in her life is a sense of profundity. Perhaps we can say the same for Sara Colangelo. At times, it feels like The Kindergarten Teacher hits you over the head with its critique of social media, which may be the film’s only pitfall. It seems to draw a number of hard lines: between art and technology; between adolescence and adulthood; between action and intention. In the same breath, however, the film muddles these very lines into oblivion. What happens when the kindergarten teacher’s lesson is ultimately misguided? I hope you’ll find out for yourself.