Sara Colangelo on The Kindergarten Teacher
In The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal becomes obsessed with one of her students whom she believes is a child prodigy when it comes to poetry. We talk to writer-director Sara Colangelo about the making of her unsettling, hard to classify film
From her breakthrough performance in Secretary to HBO’s 70s sex worker drama The Deuce, Maggie Gyllenhaal has excelled with lead roles that flirt with transgression of varying kinds. The Kindergarten Teacher, which won the Dramatic Directing prize at last year’s Sundance, finds the actor on both familiar and new ground. In Sara Colangelo’s tense film, she plays Lisa, a teacher becoming uncomfortably close to a little boy in her care, attempting to nurture and, arguably, exploit his astonishing gifts for poetry with increasingly boundary-pushing methods. Any traits typical of a child prodigy drama (think Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate) are upturned pretty quickly.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a remake of a 2014 Israeli feature, whose writer-director, Nadav Lapid, just won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale for his new film, Synonyms. In Colangelo’s adaptation, which she wrote alongside directing, the drama is transplanted to New York City and rooted in certain specificities of American culture. If you have seen the fairly acclaimed original film, this new take is a far cry from just repeating the same points in English.
“I really didn't want to do this unless I felt like I could make it unique and really say something about the culture right now in the United States,” Colangelo says of writing the screenplay. “And I felt like there was a lot of room to do so. I really wanted to ask what space we as Americans, I guess, give to art or lack thereof. Nadav Lapid, who wrote the original and is such an incredible filmmaker himself, I think he was tackling a lot of gender issues in Israel, the state of art in a country at war, a lot about masculinity within that kind of culture. So, I think he was tackling different things and there was something so beautiful and allegorical about the bare bones of the storyline that I felt that I could take it and make it something wholly new.”
Trump, arts, education and women in America
Among those issues of interest to Colangelo were a chance to explore a woman starving for a certain kind of satisfaction that influences her doing questionable things. “I think there's this latent passion for the arts that the character has that I was really interested in,” she says, “and I was excited by the fact that she commits so many transgressions and crosses so many sacred boundaries. There was something challenging and complicated about that depiction of a woman, and I thought it was fresh and something for right now. It spoke to me. I think after the  American election, there was this feeling of women's voices being trampled upon a bit, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on. To me, this was a story of a woman's voice being trampled on and bulldozed.”
Although the contemporary political climate influenced the final film, Colangelo began writing the screenplay before Trump took the presidency: “I had adapted it or done a few drafts beforehand and then we were tweaking really up to shooting. But I guess I was thinking about a lot of these things. I was pregnant, about to become a mother, so I was thinking a lot about also that. How do you nurture a child that has a gift? And I'm thinking about caretaking and the life of this woman, Lisa, who has been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years and is constantly giving, giving, giving, and then for once wants to be fed herself intellectually and creatively.”
Mentioning that President Trump wanted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, Colangelo posits that “there's always been this push and pull in American society on what we call the core curriculum, and there's this desire to get kids to start reading and writing at the age of five or six, whereas when I was a kid, we were allowed to play and socialise in kindergarten a bit more and paint and do all of these things. There’s been a shift in American society where children are getting pushed into academics quite early. It was a lot of fun for me to create this character that was almost like a Montessori or Waldorf school teacher stuck in a public school, trying to squeeze arts into a really kind of crowded curriculum that's academics-based.”
Influences and immigration
Played by remarkable first-time actor Parker Sevak, Jimmy, the child prodigy, has a fascinating rapport with Gyllenhaal’s Lisa. “He is very intelligent,” Colangelo says of Sevak, “but also has this openness and playfulness I think was really important. I think there should be this tension between the character being a great poet but also wanting to be a normal kid and just kick a football around.” Of additional importance for the themes the filmmaker wanted to explore was that Jimmy be a child of immigrants, with a father who isn’t necessarily disapproving of his son’s gifts but not especially eager to encourage them at such a young age.
“My Dad is an immigrant, an Italian immigrant. My mom is first generation Italian-American, so I've felt a little bit of that. My parents now are quite supportive, but there was a bit of a hesitation on their part when I decided to go into the arts because I think you work so hard to get to a certain place, whether that be a country or a state of being or whatever. And I think you want your children to do something practical and you want them to protect themselves and to make money. So, I really approached Jimmy’s family in that kind of earnest way.
"To me it was important that he'd be the child of immigrants. Also, I was looking at who would be the next poet in the United States. Would it just be another white guy? In my experience, and I had gone to a lot of poetry clubs as I was writing the film, it was a really diverse crowd and I was really interested in that; that the next poet laureate of the United States can be someone of colour, someone within a minority community.”
In terms of the cinematic influences informing The Kindergarten Teacher, Colangelo says: “I was looking a lot at early Polanski, I was looking a lot at Michael Haneke; The Piano Teacher I love. I didn't want to create a portrait of mental illness because I don't think that's this film at all. It's really a woman's spiralling out of control because she has this incredible desire to be part of the creative process. That’s how Maggie and I envisioned it, but we were definitely looking into the psychological thriller genre and wanting to lean into it both from a visual perspective and one of performance and directing.”
Recalling an interview Gyllenhaal did with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, wherein the host expressed confusion about the movie’s unsettling shifts in tone, Colangelo feels her film “encompasses a lot of different things and can’t be put into one box.” It’s a quality she’s proud of. “I think that's fun. A lot of men have done genre films and thrillers and I think not many female filmmakers have and perhaps there's something to that. In putting it in the hands of someone a little different, maybe it can shift and be something new.”