Gyllenhaal fearless in unsettling character study
Film review - The Kindergarten Teacher (12A): 8.5/10
A shepherdess of impressionable young minds leads us into murky ethical waters in director Sara Colangelo's gripping English-language remake of the Israeli film of the same title.
Reset to Staten Island, The Kindergarten Teacher is a deeply unsettling psychological drama which pivots deliciously on a fearless lead performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal as the titular educator, whose obsession with a five-year-old pupil warps her instinct to nurture.
Colangelo's script invites Gyllenhaal to walk a tightrope between predator and misguided protector, which she accomplishes with dizzying aplomb.
She teases the ambiguities of her flawed character and these subtle shifts in tone and intent steadily crank up tension till our knuckles glow white with fear.
Gyllenhaal's fallen angel repeatedly crosses the divide between encouragement and exploitation in her pursuit of perfection, averting her gaze from her own mediocrity to focus intently on the burgeoning brilliance of a boy entrusted to her care.
The actress burrows deep beneath the skin of her anti-heroine and we find ourselves ricocheting at speed between pity and disgust as she enacts her plan, seemingly blinkered to the potentially catastrophic consequences.
Kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) yearns for a spark of excitement in her marriage to her husband Grant (Michael Chernus).
Her relationship with her own children is strained and, to compound Lisa's dissatisfaction, her efforts at writing poetry fail to impress Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), the handsome teacher of an evening class for aspiring scribes.
In one of these sessions, Lisa recites verse composed by one of her students, a cherub called Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), and passes off his poem as the fruits of her creative toil.
Simon is impressed and gives the carefully chosen words a glowing reception.
Buoyed by the undeserved praise, Lisa surmises that Jimmy is a 'young Mozart' in need of nurturing.
She assiduously inserts herself into the boy's life and disrupts the influence of other adults including Jimmy's babysitter Becca (Rosa Salazar).
Lisa fails to convince Jimmy's father Nikhil (Ajay Naidu) that his boy should forgo weekly baseball practice with friends to publicly recite poetry. 'I want my son to have a normal life,' argues Nikhil. However, Lisa has come too far to stop now.
The Kindergarten Teacher is an expertly composed character study that holds us in a vice-like grip, steadily forcing the air out of our lungs as Lisa jeopardises her reputation and - more importantly - the well-being of her innocent ward.
Gyllenhaal is inscrutable when she needs to be and gels wonderfully with youngster Sevak, who is a natural in front of the camera.
Colangelo makes light work of the 97-minute running time, leaving us to make our own choices before we sink into the moral quagmire with the lead character.