Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak in THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a career-best performance in THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, a disturbing thriller which examines the fine line between nurture and obsession

The relationship between teacher and student seems to be a recurring theme at the BFI London Film Festival this year. Following Ursula Meier’s SHOCK WAVES: DIARY OF MY MIND which examines a teacher’s influence on her high school student, director Sara Colangelo takes it to another level in THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, examining the fine line between nurture and obsession.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a teacher trying to reawaken her own creativity by taking a poetry outside of school hours. While her own poems receive lacklustre responses from her classmates and her teacher (Gael García Bernal), she discovers a child in her kindergarten class – aged just five – is a poetic prodigy. Taking it upon herself to record the work, Lisa encourages Jimmy (Parker Sevak) to perform his poems and to be more creative. It isn’t long however before the nurturing soon turns into obsession as Lisa convinces herself that she’s the only person who can really care for him and his talent.

Turning from a subtly paced drama into a disturbing thriller, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER certainly packs an emotional punch for a story so delicately told. This intelligent adaptation of Nadiv Lapid’s Israeli film of the same name, examines the fine line between nurture and obsession, questioning the trust between teacher and student, as well as offering subtle observations on identity, guardianship and artistic endeavour.

The entire film hinges on Maggie Gyllenhaal who gives a career-best performance as Lisa, the morally grey and complicated woman, who despite her unlikability is incredibly human. Gyllenhaal brings sympathy to a character that increasingly doesn’t deserve it, infusing Lisa with an authentic, lived-in feel that remains a consistent highlight.

Gyllenhaal has a great chemistry with young child actor Parker Sevak, whose Jimmy is sweet but also impenetrable. The supporting cast is equally strong but doesn’t really get much material, particularly Golden-Globe winner Gael Garcia Bernal who is underused as Lisa’s rather arrogant poetry teacher.

Yet as THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER develops, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Here, Colangelo walks a fine line in making Lisa’s character understandable but also despicable and unlikable as she recklessly oversteps the boundaries. Lisa believes she is helping Jimmy in a world that will overlook his talent and her disturbing behaviour is presented in such a way that isn’t fully acknowledged – until the very end – resulting in an uneasy feeling that may put off some viewers entirely.

That said, this is a nuanced, beguiling and delicately woven piece, which offers some genuinely thought-provoking questions. Add in Gyllenhaal’s impeccable performance and the result is an intelligent, sharp and fascinating character study that will linger long in the mind.

4 out of 5 stars

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 18 October 2018