What to watch: The Kindergarten Teacher

Maggie Gyllenhaal astounds in this gripping indie drama

Courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing 

Having spent the past 20 years teaching five-year-olds their ABCs, Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is desperately seeking a creative outlet. She enrolls in a late-night poetry course – under the tutelage of Mozart in the Jungle’s Gael García Bernal – but her literary ambitions are quashed by her classmates, who dub her writing “typical” and “derivative”. Disheartened by this feedback, Lisa latches onto Jimmy, her precociously talented pupil who tends to burst into evocative verse. “On some level the movie is about a woman who gets obsessed with a kid in her class she thinks is a poetic genius,” says Gyllenhaal at Autograph Collection Hotels' Behind The Scenes Talk. “But really it’s about what happens when you starve a vibrant woman’s mind.” 

Maggie Gyllenhaal with Mark Kermode. Courtesy Getty Images 

Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, The Kindergarten Teacher is unsettling in its refusal to present its protagonist as wholly abhorrent or virtuous, offsetting scenes of her nurturing her young protégé with ones in which she manipulates, kidnaps and harasses him. Lisa’s attachment to her student becomes increasingly inappropriate until it erupts in a shocking crescendo. “It’s a wild rollercoaster,” says Gyllenhaal. "You will feel at times watching it, ‘I want to get off. I don’t like this. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. I don’t know if I’m on her side or not.’” The actress mines her character’s moral ambiguity, delivering an incredibly nuanced performance that is among the best of her career. The Kindergarten Teacher is a riveting and subversive drama, anchored by the unpredictability of its infuriating antiheroine.   

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ is now streaming on Netflix US, and will be available on Netflix UK from 8 February 2019. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Autograph Collection Hotels’ independent-film advisor; the group’s Behind The Scenes speaker series will continue quarterly in 2019.