We live in an era where the specter and awareness of child abuse is so pervasive that you can’t just throw that issue into a narrative without really taking it on — doing anything less would be like introducing the proverbial gun and then never having anyone fire it. Based on Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s 2014 drama of the same title, Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” stars Maggie Gyllenthal as the title figure, a dissatisfied working wife and mother on Staten Island whose frustrated artistic aspirations find an outlet of sorts in the discovery that one of her 5-year-old charges is an apparent poetical prodigy.
As her interest rapidly grows from enthusiasm to obsession, she begins crossing the line of acceptable professional behavior — but with viewers uncertain whether she’s simply an over-zealous mentor or someone who poses a real threat to a child’s well-being, the ambiguity with which Colangelo views that line-crossing frustrates as well as intrigues. For the lead actress (also a producer here), this is a chance to play another complex, problematic, not-entirely-likable character in the mode of such prior personal-best roles as “Secretary” and “Sherrybaby.” But the hazy middle ground between “Good Will Hunting” and creepy psychological thriller inhabited here is perhaps a zone a little too grey for a topic as charged as that which “Teacher” ambivalently circles.
Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has taught school for 20 years, and is evidently quite good at it. But it’s not enough; nor is an amiable but way-past-passionate marriage to Michael Chernus’ spouse. Their two teenage children (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules) have their own lives now, and are “conventional” in ways that mom clearly disapproves of. She wants “something more” for them all, but particularly herself: something rooted in self-expression and art. To this end, she’s taking an adult education course in poetry writing, though so far her own work has elicited little enthusiasm from either classmates or the instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal).
One day at work a little boy named Jimmy (Parker Sevak), who’s often stuck waiting after school for his tardy nanny to pick him up, opens his mouth and spontaneously recites a bit of weirdly precocious poetry, seemingly off the top of his head. When this turns out to be more than a freak occurrence, Lisa begins urging the boy’s caregivers (his parents are divorced) to write down any such utterances for posterity, while she commences trying to encourage his muse in any other way she can think of. This leads to her taking him out of class (even during nap-time) for private conversations, and other things that are a little odd between a 5-year-old boy and a 40-year-old he’s not related to. She also starts reading his “work” in her writing class, neglecting to note that it isn’t hers, and getting an immediate uptick in appreciation for a talent that had excited no one before. (Indeed, when later she again reads something of her own, Bernal’s flirty prof is lukewarm once again.)
Feeling increasingly that no one else cares about Jimmy’s “young Mozart”-level potential — or about things like poetry, period, anymore — her actions become more invasive and reckless. Eventually she is doing that thing that is never, ever acceptable in our society today: taking someone else’s child somewhere under false pretenses, without parental permission.
Shaping the basic elements of Laipid’s original script but also freely adapting and altering them, Colangelo (whose underrated 2014 first feature “Little Accidents” was about the aftermath of a fatal mining accident) has created a consistently interesting if slow-moving drama that works very well as a showcase for its lead performer. Gyllenhaal has always been particularly good at conveying reservoirs of disquiet in characters who may not be able to fully grasp (let alone articulate) what their lives lack. But if Lisa compels interest with her restlessness and increasingly dodgy decisions, we expect a film portraying her to have a firmer take on what she’s made of: Are we dealing with potential molestation here? Mental illness? Or just a seeker of truth and beauty who’s found an artistic soulmate the world isn’t quite ready for?
That the fadeout suggests this last scenario is still even a possibility further clouds the film’s impact. The equivocation with which Colangelo presents Lisa’s motivations and actions can’t help but draw us in. The lack of any real resolution in terms of psychological insight, however, leaves this a movie whose glass is half empty — maybe it’s just not possible to have a story about a 5-year-old’s de facto stalker that isn’t sure what it (or we) should think about the matter.
Supporting performances are strong within their limits, with Bernal bringing lots of layers to his few scenes, while pint-sized Sevak is a naturalistic blank just enigmatic enough to pull off the notion of a child who just might spout adult-sounding, melancholic verbiage. The presentation is thoughtfully low-key, with no showy effects in Pepe Avila Del Pino’s widescreen cinematography or Asher Goldschmidt’s piano-based score.