One night at the end of December, I attended a film screening and discussion at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. This is not how I typically spend my evenings, and I would have missed the event completely were it not for a friend who invited me as part of her birthday celebration.
The film being shown was The Kindergarten Teacher, about which I knew nothing in advance. I assumed it would be a charming, lighthearted depiction of the agony and ecstasy involved in shepherding children through their first year of formal schooling (something I know a bit about, as I’m in the midst of homeschooling my kindergartener.)
The big draw for me was that the film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, would be present for a question-and-answer session with her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. I have admired the talent of both of these actors in their past films — and I admired the calm, quiet way in which I witnessed them navigate The Vermont Book Store with their two daughters a couple of years ago. (Although when I returned home from that shopping trip, a little star-struck, to report my celebrity sighting – in Vermont! – the 23-year-old Middlebury College graduate who was living with us at the time looked at me blankly before saying, “Maggie Gyllenhaal…? Wait – is she related to Jake Gyllenhaal?”)
The Kindergarten Teacher was not a charming, lighthearted film. True to its title, it was the story of a kindergarten teacher, but this kindergarten teacher – a 40-something woman in the Manhattan suburbs – harbors an unfulfilled longing for poetry and culture. She’s taking continuing education poetry classes, but her poems receive lukewarm responses. Her husband is supportive but seems baffled by her longings; her two teenaged children barely look up from their devices to speak to her. So, when she discovers that one of her kindergarten students is a poet prodigy, she’s determined to nurture his talent – a goal that turns increasingly dark: In the film’s climax, she kidnaps her student in a perverse attempt to keep the little boy artistically pure.
Maggie Gyllenhaal acts beautifully in the title role, building sympathy with her audience so that we wince when she begins making horrible decisions. The Kindergarten Teacher is not an easy film to watch, but I’m glad that I did: It was well made and thought provoking.
And the discussion that followed the film was perhaps more thought provoking than the film itself.
“This is a film about what happens when women are silenced,” Maggie Gyllenhaal declared in her opening comments.
And although I admire her talent and her parenting, I thought, “Huh?!?”