Mining into the delicate bond between a kindergarten teacher and one of the children under her care, whom she finds out, apropos of nothing, is prone to blurt out sublime poems as if struck by lightning, and what makes her tick is that she is an amateur poetess-to-be herself. Her ordinary life starts to unwind when she gradually breaches the ethical boundary of her profession, pulling out all stops to save Yoav’s precious genius being effaced from the materialistic, secular world around him, but to what end?
THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER is Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s second feature, alternately shot from a child-height angle to align with a viewpoint of the 5-year-old poetry prodigy Yoav (Shnaidman), or deploying ultra close-ups on the pensive teacher Nira (Larry), restraint is the operative word here, and although viewers might concur with Nira’s indefatigable endeavor of nurturing an inchoate genius by othering and monopolizing Yoav, but it leaves much to be desired under her inscrutable mask, at one point, Lapid’s script exposes her hypocrisy by letting her rat on nanny Miri (Rada) to Yoav’s restaurateur father Amnon (Lazarov), as we are fully aware that she is doing the same, by cribbing Yoav’s poems in her poetry class.
So, our compassion towards her naturally blunts and maybe that is what Lapid intends, henceforth, audience are not certain what she will do to cleave to the cherubic Yoav, after two-timing her unwitting husband (Raz) with his poetry teacher (Ben-David), a perk earned by Yoav’s poems of course, a poetry rendition with Yoav in public, and a GLORIA-moment of abandoning herself on the dance floor, a plug is pulled on her undue involvement, and Nira’s last resort is a daring feat, and its possible, sorry consequences are craftily defused by the script, which let Yoav pass the reality testing down pat, not just a nerdy poet, he is savvy enough to pre-empt Nira’s delusional act.
The American namesake remake is directed by Sara Colangelo, also her second feature, the story is transposed to the Staten Island, Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) is the teacher and the prodigy is Jimmy Roy (Sevak), of Indian or Pakistani lineage, here, Colangelo astutely fine-tunes the perspective, which establishes Lisa as the fulcrum, no more lingering shot on the cute boy, as the trick is to reify that elusive task of how to graft an eureka moment as naturally as possible onto a child actor’s performance, since no one knows how that happens in real life when a preschool child suddenly makes up a poem purely out of his/her imagination, Colangelo’s evasive strategy is a smart move compared with the original.
The plot becomes leaner and clearer, the poetry reading part is significantly ameliorated (Gael García Bernal’s poetry teacher giving a stern lecture is one thing, here we are saved from that oceanic ambiguity in the original), more Lisa’s family life is presented, phubbed by her daughter Lainie (Tahan) and riled to know her son Josh (Jules) is contemplating joining the Marine Corps, Lisa’s frustration and vexation is tactile and suddenly, it is in evidence that the discovery of Jimmy’s talent becomes a vector for her to break out of her own unsatisfactory status quo, to a point, whether Jimmy is a poet or not is irrelevant, her obsession stems from the fact that she can never live down with mediocrity, explicated by her final persuasion, she doesn’t want Jimmy to grow up and end up like her, so on a subliminal level, she considers herself a stunted specimen whose talent is smothered by the society, and Colangelo’s revamped script shows great care into anatomizing that prevalent feeling of unfulfilled void, often, mediocrity is not a negative thing, to embrace it we might find unexpected peace with ourselves and a deep fount of humility, which will go a long way.
Another reason why the remake outstrips the original is Gyllenhaal’s incredible performance, much more humane, visceral and well-meaning, taking the recital scene for example, when Jimmy finally divulges who is Anna, the protagonist of one of his poems, that crumpling feeling of letdown is conveyed with such a gut punch that what dawns on Lisa is the distance between her and Jimmy, their idealized relationship is lopsided, and Gyllenhaal runs away with her discomfited realization, overall she is consistently magnificent in eliciting sympathy, empathy and complexity that makes the film an excellent character study that is both beneficial and immense thought-provoking, not to mention that cracking finishing touch.
referential entries: Eran Kolirin’s THE BAND’S VISIT (2007, 7.7/10); Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY (2010, 8.0/10).