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There are certain types of indie films that give the genre a bad name. Such films pretend to have loftier goals than typical narratives, and as such, they use this pretension to skip over some basic aspects that you'd find in a more traditional film. The Kindergarten Teacher is one such film, as it ultimately wants to tell the story of a teacher and the pupil she's fixated upon. But what could have been an effective thriller about obsession and ambition tediously dances around having an actual story that backs its intentions.
Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a Kindergarten teacher in New York that means well when it comes to both her students and her family. Taking poetry lessons as an outlet for her own personal enrichment, she finds herself frustrated that she's not doing as well as she hopes she would. A potential solution presents itself in one of her students, little Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), who happens to be a natural poet. As she starts to present his work as her own in class, a partnership develops with slowly increasing stakes.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a painful film to watch, which is an amazing feat considering it's only around an hour and a half long. But even with what should have been a breezy running time, director / co-writer Sara Colangelo's film takes almost a full hour to get into a gear that feels like it's going somewhere. By the time the film arrives to its eventual conclusion, it still feels rushed into its ending, without showing the proper work to get there.
Frustration is a word best used to describe watching The Kindergarten Teacher, because it feels like it's using various parts from other mid-life crisis films, and does so with an air of increased drama. Lisa becomes involved in various happenings that we've seen used to better effect in other films, such as infidelity and family strife, but none of it connects like it's meant to. These events just kind of happen, without any drive or cohesive narrative to prop them up into a working story.
It's heartbreaking to pan a film that has a talent such as Maggie Gyllenhaal on board, and to The Kindergarten Teacher's credit, having her play Lisa is the best thing it's got going for it. Her portrayal of a woman going through a bit of a midlife crisis is as nuanced and able as it can be, despite not having all of the thematic building blocks to put together a full picture of her character's world. Her chemistry with young Parker Sevak, who also puts in a compelling performance as Jimmy, suggests that should these two actors be cast in another movie, with a better script, they'd still work as well together as they did here.
Sevak himself is a bit of a revelation, as his role in The Kindergarten Teacher is critical to the film's story, so we're seeing him in almost every frame of the film. Were a lesser child performer given this role, they could easily grow to be cloying or annoying very quickly, but Parker Sevak is a young talent that shows true potential, even if it's buried under a story that doesn't truly serve his or his co-star's talents.
Netflix originals have a habit of being a bit hit or miss, and The Kindergarten Teacher is most definitely a missed opportunity to tell an intriguing story. It's a film that feels longer than it should, despite the fact that there's threads scattered here and there that could have been developed into a better narrative. When you waste actors like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak, it makes your film feel like an act of criminal negligence. Instead of being an arresting narrative, The Kindergarten Teacher should be arrested for wasting your time.