Don’t go into Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Kindergarten Teacher (coming to Netflix on Oct. 12) thinking you will be watching a cute story about an experienced, if slightly jaded, kindergarten teacher who fights to ensure that the work of one of her exceptionally gifted student’s is shared with the world. As with many of Gyllenhaal’s projects, this is a dark story about a teacher crossing many ethical lines to siphon art from a child. It also takes a familiar trope, the “white savior narrative,” and uses it to take this story to unsettling places.
After seen the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I feel it’s important we talk about how The Kindergarten Teacher needs to be watched with a cautious, keen eye.
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Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) spends her days watching kindergarteners color and her nights taking poetry classes at the community college. She seems good at one and achingly mediocre at the other. Her family seems quite normal — which is exactly the problem. Her husband is average, her kids are only interested in partying and social media, and she doesn’t appear to have any actual friends in her life. But Lisa yearns for art and meaningful expression. Then she meets 5-year-old Jimmy Roy.
Jimmy is a kindergartener with a remarkable ability to recite beautiful original poetry that, as is clear from her night class, Lisa is incapable of. Lisa begins to find meaning in her life through little Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak, who is of South Asian descent. While Lisa’s obsession with Jimmy is appropriately portrayed as deeply creepy, the story’s framing is one we’ve seen before. Movies like Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds show white teachers who are the only ones with the capacity to see what’s special about their students of color and make it their mission to rescue them. This is also Lisa’s seemingly noble cause that she takes to the extreme. While these types of stories — called the “white savior narrative” — end up being inspiration porn for the mostly white audiences they are created for, The Kindergarten Teacher takes that narrative at its most literal.
There are moments in The Kindergarten Teacher when Lisa’s behavior will likely provoke a strong reaction from viewers. At various points in the film, Lisa takes Jimmy into the school bathroom during nap time to coax him into reciting more of his poems. In the middle of an intimate encounter with her husband, she hastily pushes him aside to answer a call from Jimmy so she can write down one of his poems. Her thirst for Jimmy’s art, her desire to both nurture it and claim it for herself, causes her to spiral into predator territory. The Kindergarten Teacher also, perhaps unintentionally, takes the white savior trope and shows you how it often comes off to most audiences of color: not that heartwarming.
Lisa claims no one in Jimmy’s life is interested in his poems. His father doesn’t care, Jimmy’s mother is out of the picture, and he has a vapid babysitter. The only one who does seem to care is his uncle — who is preoccupied with a job that overworks and underpays him. But Jimmy isn’t exactly alone in the world. Lisa just believes she is the only one who will artistically nourish this extraordinary brown boy. And this is where the white savior narrative comes into play. What would he do without her? She doesn’t take into account that he is only 5 and will have plenty of time and plenty of other people to find ways to nurture his art — or not.
The Kindergarten Teacher is an adaptation of an Israeli film in which both teacher and student are Israeli, so the film’s use of this trope may be accidental. It’s also possible that director Sara Colangelo may not have been thinking of the racial dynamics when casting Sevak — but it only amplifies the disquieting nature of Lisa’s relationship with Jimmy.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a disturbing but riveting psychological thriller, as you’ll end up wanting to know how far Lisa will go with Jimmy and become increasingly concerned for his safety.
As a final thought, consider this: while the use of the white savior narrative works in certain moments in the film, why couldn’t this adaptation dare to reinvent the parameters of the film in such a way that it more deeply explores the relationships between race, gender, age and power within the teacher-student dynamic?