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D: Sara Colangelo / 96m

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules, Ajay Naidu, Samrat Chakrabarti

Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. She has a family of her own – husband Grant (Chernus), and two teenage children, Josh (Jules) and Lainie (Tahan) – but seems more at ease with the children in her class. In her spare time she attends a weekly poetry class run by Simon (Bernal), but though she tries her best, her poems are regarded as derivative and uninspired. One day, one of her pupils, Jimmy (Sevak), recites a poem that Lisa notes down. Believing it to be both beautiful and profound, she uses it as her own at her next poetry class, where it is well received by everyone. Enjoying this new recognition, Lisa takes more of an interest in Jimmy and tries to ensure she doesn’t miss any more spontaneous poems he might come up with. Certain that he’s a child prodigy, Lisa encourages Jimmy to let her know when he has a new verse. Soon, she is attempting to insert herself more and more into his life in order to foster his talent, but it leads to her making some very unwise decisions…

A remake of the 2014 Israeli movie of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher is that rare remake that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Featuring a bravura performance from Gyllenhaal, the movie tackles its theme of intellectual obsession with a rigour and a complexity that ensures the material retains a number of layers for the viewer to explore even as more and more of Lisa’s motives are revealed. At first, she seems to be exploiting Jimmy’s talent for her own benefit, getting praise at her poetry class, and in time, receiving Simon’s lustful attentions. But as the story unfolds, and we learn more about her, we discover that Lisa is unhappy, with her life which seems to be stuck in a rut, with her marriage which has become stale, and with her children who are striking out on their own and lack any apparent need for intellectual stimulation, something that appals her deeply. Unable to take control of anything other than her standing in the poetry class (and only by deception), Lisa does her best to be the overseer of Jimmy’s talent, and by doing so, to find a new purpose in her life. And as she does so, she becomes more and more willing to take the kind of risks that will cause her downfall – and yet still be grateful to do so.

Of course, there are moral and ethical dilemmas to be addressed here, and Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay, covers these issues astutely, and displays a keen awareness of Lisa’s emotional needs, and the maternal instincts that have been dulled by her children’s growing independence. In Jimmy she can see a redemptive opportunity, and by nurturing his talent and making sure it’s not squandered as he gets older, Lisa is able to validate her own sense of self-worth. Gyllenhaal is magnificent as Lisa, giving the kind of assured, dazzlingly authoritative performance that we haven’t seen from her in ages, and she dominates the movie from start to finish, expressing Lisa’s hopes and fears and initial lack of personal direction with a fierce intelligence that makes the character entirely credible throughout, and which makes a last reel admission all the more heartbreaking for its wrenching honesty. There are good supporting performances from Sevak and Chernus (though Bernal is under-utilised), and Colangelo makes good use of an often unsettling score courtesy of Asher Goldschmidt. Some viewers may be expecting a tragic ending to such a tale of obsession, and while there is one, it’s far more tragic for what it implies than what actually occurs, something that adds a chilling grace note to what’s gone before.

Rating: 8/10 – with a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and a storyline that embraces the emotional turmoil of someone who’s desperate to restore some meaning to their life – however they can – The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling and thought-provoking at the same time; as much about one woman’s skewed maternal instincts as it is about the path she takes to redeem herself in her own eyes, this is a movie that slowly and quietly grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go until the final, haunting shot.