Now that the Academy has seen to it that Julianne Moore and Viola Davis have Oscars, perhaps they can turn their attention to a new “best actress to never win an Oscar.”
That would be Maggie Gyllenhaal, the always provocative, endlessly inventive, empathetic even at her edgiest Queen of Memorable Performances. It would be nice if the star of “Secretary,” “Sherrybaby,” “Away We Go”and “Crazy Heart,” America’s answer to Helen Mirren in the fearless-fierce-sexy lead or character lead, won that recognition before she’s Mirren’s age.
We can’t call “The Kindergarten Teacher” her masterpiece, because she’s dazzling, even in pedestrian films. But this nuanced Netflix Original should have led to an Oscar nomination, at the very least.
In this remake of an Israeli film, Gyllenhaal has the title role, that of an artistically-minded woman, a devoted kindergarten teacher of 20 years whose after hours passion is poetry. But she’s just good enough, with effort, to recognize genius when she hears it.
And she hears it out of a five year old boy in her class.
Lisa Spinelli lives on Staten Island, relatively content with her still-attentive husband (Michael Chernus) and two teenage kids. But she’s been going to a night school poetry class taught the ever-enthusiastic Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal).
But the first poem that has him enthusiastic about her work is one she overheard tumbling out of the tiny tyke Jimmy (Parker Sevak) in her kindergarten class.
Jimmy paces, stares at the floor, and the words pound out with every footstep — rhythmic, allegorical, cryptic. Gyllenhaal lets us see the full flood of emotions in Lisa’s reaction — wonder and awe, envy and resignation.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” makes it her mission to get down Jimmy’s words, to enlist his young and distracted nanny into doing the same. She’s committed her favorite poems (Robert Frost’s “Lodged”), so she knows talent when she hears it. She tries to reach the boy’s bar-owner father, to get across to him “how rare this gift is.
She devotes down moments in class — naptime and playground time — to Jimmy, prodding him to do it again.
And she starts passing off Jimmy’s work as her own to her once-dismissive night school teacher and classmates.
The genius of this script is where it takes us from there, into places too predictable and occasionally, disturbing. Gyllenhaal’s “dangerous” vibe — a career-long attribute — make us fear for the child and fear for her as this obsession, her mania for nurturing Jimmy’s talent, takes over.
It spills over into her home life, the disappointments her promising kids are turning into.
We can see where this is going, but so can Lisa. It’s fated, operatic. All she can hope to do is get someone — the world — to focus on this ephemeral miracle she’s stumbled upon in the brief time she is sure it will last.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is a great performance, the latest from an actress with a reputation for giving them. Watch it on Netflix and see what the Academy missed.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and nudity
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gael Garcia Bernal, Parker Sevak
Credits: Directed by Sara Colangelo, script by Sara Colangelo, based on the Nadav Lapid script to the Israeli film of the same title. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:37