2018 Toronto International Film Festival Diary: For the love of poetry in “The Kindergarten Teacher”

“I have a poem.”

It’s such an innocuous line but one that hides a wealth of profundity. In “The Kindergarten Teacher,” it’s the cue that Jimmy Roy, a child prodigy, uses to let the adults around him know that he has a poem to recite. But there’s a sly metaphorical value that makes the line feel loaded. To have a poem means to have something artistic within you that is more exciting than mere prose. Beyond its literal meaning, the word poetry is a stand-in for intensity, for intensity of emotion, for acuity of feeling that is sometimes hard to define. To have a poem suggests a possibility of greatness or fulfillment; a capacity for talent. But, what if we don’t have a poem? What if we live a life with no poetry? How far would we go to nurture the poem in someone else?

This is the question “The Kindergarten Teacher” hinges on, and it’s a big question. And it’s to her credit that writer-director Sara Colangelo whittles this big question down to a film with a small scope, never forcing the audience to consider philosophical musings first and keeping us close, sometimes uncomfortably so, to her main character. The film is a remake of a 2014 Israeli film with the same title and subject. I’m not sure how faithful an adaptation it is, but Colangelo’s film is immediately confident and sure enough of itself. The film, with a crisp aesthetic and a mood that disconcerts, gently, at first, and then more aggressively works to coax out of us feelings and emotions that intrigue and then disturb.

The opening sequence of the film establishes itself in that same unassuming way. For a brief second we watch a classroom. It is dark and desolate. It is like any classroom, practical and nondescript. Our eponymous teacher (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lisa) enters and begins to open the shutters, turn on the fan but something seems just slightly off. Lisa pulls out one of the seats and sinks into it. They’re meant for young children so she is immediately out of place – too big for this little spot. It doesn’t help that the shot keeps her on the edge. Nothing seems explicitly wrong in the sequence, and yet everything is not right. For 20 long seconds the camera stays with her as she sits and the fan drones on. She heaves a sigh and closes her eye and those seconds seem to go on forever as we watch her. What is she thinking? Before we can answer the title appears almost teasingly: “The Kindergarten Teacher”. As if to say: this is her life. This opening is made all the more significant for the scene that immediately follows our title. It’s a sequence of Lisa traveling (she is static no longer) as she makes her way to an evening poetry class. She sits and looks on with wide-eyes that are yearning, almost desperately it seems. She seems hungry for knowledge, for fulfilment and as she jumps at the chance to read one of her poems, we realise she is searching for value. The dichotomy established from the inception is key to the way the film will continue. For even the teacher is searching for purpose.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher. (Image courtesy of TIFF)

Film and literature have been fascinated by the idea of teachers and schools as symbols of larger societal issues. The idea of the teacher as the harbinger of something larger, and that of the school as a centre for finding oneself are both fascinating and Colangelo uses and then destroys this trope in fascinating ways. Colangelo’s film never builds to a direct assessment of the education system. The film’s scope is too small for that. But there are sequences in the first half–Lisa cleaning a child’s toilet, Lisa fixing the decorative plants, Lisa pouring cups of juice, a slyly pragmatic sequence of children’s faces one after the other after the other–that hits us with the strange mundaneness of life. It’s not that Lisa’s life as a teacher is bad, but it is one of crippling normalcy. “My hand hurts,” a student says as they work on their letters. Lisa nods in solidarity, “Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a long time, haven’t we?” The irony of the line cuts deep. It is like the poems she writes. It is all overwhelmingly unspectacular. Enter, Jimmy…

Jimmy is Lisa’s young student who makes up poems on the spot. It’s a gift that seems almost supernatural. He’s not quite sure where they come from and the adults around him seem blithely unaware or indifferent to any potential value here. But, Lisa, who yearns for poetry anywhere, is fascinated by him. And her fascination turns into a fervent appreciation and then obsession that the film traces with a sincerity that overwhelms. One of the reasons this trajectory works is because of the trust that Colangelo cedes to her lead actress. Gyllenhaal has always had an adeptness for representing complex, and sometimes unnervingly direct characters on screen and we trust her Lisa even as she descends into behaviour that goes from normal to bizarre. It’s one of the year’s most thoughtful lead performances, made all the more compelling for the way Gyllenhaal and Colangelo resist any desire to sentimentalise the worst of human impulses. For even when Lisa is at her worst ethically, we believe that she is always acting from the best impulses and intentions.

Colangelo makes excellent use of the American dynamic for the film with the object of Lisa’s fascination being a South Asian student. Lisa’s poetry tutor, who is at first charmed and then repelled by her, is Latino. Lisa’s almost mulish disregard for interpersonal ethics force us to consider questions about gender, race, class and privilege in interesting ways but they are never the focus here. Instead the film asks a human question – what would we do to find fulfilment in our life? And, what would we do to save a child we think needs saving? Lisa’s 20-year job has given her no poetry, and her regular husband and regular teenage children, who seem slightly tired of her, provide no emotional release either. And, so, she must look for poetry where she can find it. Where she finds, and how she decides to do so, take “The Kindergarten Teacher” into places that seem ridiculous but somehow also plausible through the sheer power of Gyllenhaal’s acting ability.

And everything seems to be hurtling us towards the very ending of the film, which provides one of the most heartrending conclusions of the year, featuring a final shot and line of dialogue that have stuck with me since I saw it at TIFF last month. I left the screening feeling like I had been punched in the gut. The woman next to me and I began a 25-minute debate on the ethics of the film. Both of us were moved, troubled and provoked by the themes of the film. I suspect those same feelings of unease will be stirred for anyone who allows the 90-minute film to wash over them.

Lisa’s dilemma seems small for everyone around her. For what does it matter if a young boy can blurt out lines of poetry? It’s a curiosity but is it genius? Does it have any real world value? Colangelo is smart enough to understand that we don’t need to be forcibly given an answer to this. In fact, the question is irrelevant. Instead the question she seems to want to ask us is a bit slyer: What would a world without poetry even be like? The idea seems crazy. For, surely, poetry is everywhere. Except, Colangelo seems to know, and Gyllenhaal’s desperate Lisa seems to think, that poetry isn’t everywhere. Sometimes, you wake up, and the poetry in your life is gone. And wouldn’t you do just about anything to get that poem back? To be able to say, “I have a poem”?

The Kindergarten Teacher is one of the few Netflix films that premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It was released on Netflix last Friday.

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