“Kindergarten Teacher” surprises in the worst and best ways

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Now streaming on Netflix is the disturbing drama, “Kindergarten Teacher.” Until now, most movies with either the word “Kindergarten” or the word “teacher” in their titles are some kind of comedy. Putting the two words together creates an expectation in audiences for a sort of harmless, feel-good-eventually movie. “Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is anything but simple. It is always one step ahead of viewers, and part of the reason for that is the characterization of the movie’s young hero.

About “Kindergarten Teacher”

The visuals are exactly what audiences expect them to be. Close-up shots of young, innocent faces, still in the process of putting babyhood behind them. The view of the students in Lisa Spinelli’s (played by Gyllenhaal) class catches audiences off-guard, and eventually help readers to underestimate the hero’s abilities when it comes time for him to use them.

There is sympathy for Lisa, too. Viewers are made privy to the litany of things she has to prepare from snacks to lessons, and how she has to encourage tired and bored children to keep working.

At home, Lisa is a married with two teenage children, each in different positions in regard to sympathy or respect for their mother. Her husband is mostly supportive and appears hard-working.

Lisa’s life goes on as it has for years until she finds out that one of her students, Jimmy, at the age of five and a half years, can create poetry that is as complex as that written by adults.

At first, audiences go along for the ride with excitement, because this is a big deal. But her young student isn’t writing the poems down, he composes them in his head and recites them. Lisa writes them down. Interestingly, Lisa is taking an adult continuing education class in poetry. Her performance in the course is subpar until she begins to bring her student’s work to class.

The funny thing is, even when she is outperformed by a Kindergartener, Lisa continues in the poetry class. She continues to plagiarize her young student’s work, until she gets caught.

Slowly, the movie shows audiences Lisa’s inability to make good decisions. It isn’t until we see her disengage from a long-awaited romantic interlude with her husband in order to take a phone call from her student- – yes, they communicate by cell phone, and he is to call when he has ideas so she can write them down, that audiences start to think that Lisa is obsessed. In the background, her husband slowly dresses and leaves. Viewers get the feeling that he will always be in the background. Lisa never notices, she is enraptured by Jimmy’s call.

From that point on, it seems that the bad decisions start to have more significant consequences and come more frequently.

Audiences might wonder why Lisa is devolving. Does she have an undiagnosed mental illness? Is her life so boring that she will do anything to create excitement?

Whatever the reason for her bad decisions, Lisa never changes from anything except her resigned self. Her voice is gentle, her facial expression wistful. This continues even at the end, when obsession has gotten the best of her, and she is once again outsmarted by a Kindergartener. To Lisa’s credit,  she is a teacher until the very end.

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