by Jan Bottiglieri
Power corrupts—and The Kindergarten Teacher makes it clear that words have power.
I am going to assume that most readers have NOT seen this 2018 film directed by Sara Colangelo, or the 2014 Israeli film (by Nadav Lapid) on which it is based. This limits how much I can say about The Kindergarten Teacher, because one of its chief pleasures is the unexpected way that it unfolds.
The plot is simple—not surprisingly, it is “about” a kindergarten teacher. She recognizes a talent for poetry in one of her students, a delightfully unaffected 5-year old named Jimmy, and her emotional arc turns the film into a disturbing thriller. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, the teacher and aspiring writer who feels the need to marshal little Jimmy’s genius toward the acclaim it deserves.
It’s a tour-de-force role for Gyllenhaal, an actress who immediately reads as likable, layered, and intelligent in every role she takes. Those are important traits for us to see in Lisa because she’s not given much time to win our empathy before beginning her descent, a transformation so seamless we almost don’t see it happening at first. Parker Sevak “plays” Jimmy with such a natural affect that I wasn’t surprised to later hear the director reveal in an interview that no one told him he was in a movie—according to Colangelo, during filming the kid believed Gyllenhaal really was his kindergarten teacher.
SOME #POMOS I MISSED—AND A WEIRD AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Thank you to those who answered my early-April Twitter request with suggestions for poetry movies to see. Love Jones, The Last Station, Slam, and Bright Star are all on my to-watch list, so add them to yours, too!
There’s one other #pomo I plan to check out. I’ve been attending poetry readings in and around Chicago for some 20 years. At one such reading in 2005, I struck up a conversation with a poet seated next to me—his name was JJ, and I’d seen him around quite a bit. I asked him what the first “J” stood for, and he said “Jacob.”
“Oh, that’s my son’s name, and his middle initial is ‘J’ too!” I said. “What’s your second ‘J’ stand for?”
I can’t describe the look he gave me—but I remember thinking, “He doesn’t know,” as if a grown man could forget his own middle name. “Uh, John,” he finally said, and I told him that was also my son’s middle name! I had made a new friend: a poet who didn’t like questions and was carrying a claw hammer in his pocket. I never saw him again. The very next day, JJ was arrested for murders he’d committed 20 years earlier, when he’d escaped from a Boston prison. His real name is Norman, and he is the subject of the 2008 documentary Killer Poet. So… I also want to see that movie.
Back to The Kindergarten Teacher:
WILL MOVIE LOVERS LIKE THIS #POMO? Even if poetry is not your thing, movie lovers will recognize Lisa’s obsession—and are likely to enjoy The Kindergarten Teacher for its carefully-crafted tension, its solid performances, and the slow slide into a dark place that seems both unbelievable and chillingly inevitable.
FINAL LINE: The Kindergarten Teacher is a poetry-themed thriller, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as the unravelling pro/antagonist at its center. If your life experience has taught you that obsession is a monster, then this is also a monster movie, with elements of the vampire story, possession, and our discomfort with the unexplainable. Also, POETRY.
Each week in WWC, I have shared some poetry that movie lovers may want to check out. A wise person once said, “the hand is the foot of the arm.” Another, wiser, person is now saying, “a poem is the movie of the words.” I hope you will be encouraged by this.
Swimming from Under My Father, by Michael O’Keefe. I heard this poet do a reading once, and I bought his book, and he signed it for me. I like the poems! They’re accessible, darkly confessional, and sometimes funny. A lot of poets have issues with their fathers; not a lot of poets have starred in Caddyshack.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot. This book inspired Cats and earned Eliot a 1983 Tony Award, even though he’d died in 1965!
I discovered Eliot in high school with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which is a fantastic poem about a guy on his way to a party who is enraptured by life’s terrible and sad beauty, and is also thinking about trying to talk to girls. The silly, inventive, rhyming poems in Old Possum’s Book… are all about kitties!
My dear F-Heads and fellow journeyers along the road of #pomo discovery, that concludes this experimental and limited series of columns. I hope you enjoyed them. Thank you for reading and remember: just like movies, poems are here for you—not only during National Poetry Month, but always.
*breeding/lilacs out of the dead land