“I find it kind of funny, I find it kinda sad” — lyrics taken from Gary Jules’s “Mad World,” a song that was used in one of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s early films “Donnie Darko.” Those words can be extended to the protagonist of Netflix’s newest original film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Gyllenhaal in the titular role. Aided by her beautiful and unnerving performance, the flim, directed by Sara Colangelo, chronicles the downward spiral of a woman who cannot come to terms with her own mediocrity.
Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) is a fortysomething kindergarten teacher who discovers an exceptionally gifted child in her class. Five-year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) first reveals himself to be a Yeats contemporary in the making while waiting to be picked up by his nanny. In a sort of poetic daze, he recites a brief, touching original composition. Spinelli scrambles to write it down, awestruck, and takes it upon herself to mentor him. What initially appears to be an enthusiastic effort to nurture his talent, however, turns into an obsessive pursuit of vicarious fulfillment.
Spinelli is stuck. She leads an unexceptional life and knows it. Each week, she takes the ferry into Manhattan for a continuing education class in poetry where she begrudgingly writes uninspiring poetry. Out of desperation, Spinelli reads Jimmy’s silken verse aloud — without ever crediting him — and gets a dangerous taste of the affirmation she’s craved for so long. She begins to see Jimmy as a means of escaping the banality of her suburban existence and a ticket into the realm of high art and culture that she’s always coveted but lacked the talent to obtain for herself.
As she continues to pass Jimmy’s work off as her own, waking him up during nap time and keeping him after class to coerce poems out of him, Spinelli is lauded by her peers and her handsome instructor (Gael García Bernal). She is finally being seen, and doesn’t want to lose the feeling. The film dives into increasingly murky moral territory and doesn’t stop. Spinelli has convinced herself that she’s Jimmy’s only hope for preserving a creativity that might otherwise be snuffed out by an unappreciative and materialistic society. Tension is immediate, relief never comes and after swimming in fear of what this unraveled woman will do next, viewers leave “The Kindergarten Teacher” wholly disturbed.
Delicately layered and slow-burning, the word brilliant is not enough to describe Gyllenhaal’s performance. From the first strangely long back rub she gives a student tired of practicing her letters to the breathy, prying inflection she produces when speaking, Gyllenhaal lays the foundation for a deeply troubled character who’s both hyperextensive and misguided in her affection. She understands Lisa Spinelli to be a woman so consumed by the shame of creative stagnation that it’s visible on her frame: a fractured woman on the edge of sanity.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 15 print edition. Email Elizabeth Crawford at [email protected]