The Kindergarten Teacher is one messed up film. In this adaptation of an Israeli movie, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an unhappy schoolteacher, Lisa, with an average job and a ho-hum family life. She soon reveals her frustrated intellectual and artistic self, something neither her family nor those in her night class acknowledge. In the evenings, Lisa goes to a community college and tries to use those hidden talents in a poetry class, but receives only middling feedback from her classmates and teacher, played by a much-too-suave Gael Garcia Bernal. Then, she realizes one of her most shy pupils has a gift for words that she doesn’t, and Lisa becomes obsessed with her newfound prodigy in a very unhealthy way.
Although Garcia Bernal’s role is limited, his part is integral to the film’s story and message about who gets to play the gatekeepers of art and intellectual pursuits. His character is the first to recognize a change in Lisa’s style and applauds her for unlocking her potential (he does not suspect she’s lifting her rhymes from a kindergartener, because who would do such a terrible thing?). His poetry teacher offers Lisa the validation she does not get at home or in her classroom, and when that turns into physical affection, that’s something she’s looking for too.
When asked about Garcia Bernal at the Sundance Film Festival, director Sara Colangelo said he was just the man for the part of an attractive poetry teacher who knows his pentameters. “We approached him, and he is a great lover of poetry, actually. He had been in the film, Neruda, and really loves it, so he came on really enthusiastically.”
— SundanceFilmFestival (@sundancefest) January 28, 2018
She thought of her own experiences in classrooms in New York City to make the right decision. “I thought that it was entirely normal for a poetry teacher in the United States to be of Mexican descent, or to not have English as a first language. I’ve had a lot of professors – screenwriting professors – that have been from overseas. That was sort of interesting and a sign of the diversity of New York City, as well.”
And since it is Gael Garcia Bernal we’re talking about here, of course there’s a little swagger in his character. “There’s a sort of, smugness to him but, I think, it’s a character that does truly love the medium, and he wants to push his students, and he likes the idea of Lisa kind of being, at first, a forgettable student and suddenly, she’s this kind of, diamond in the rough.”
In the end, the temptation to be the one who discovers her work will get him into trouble as well. Keep an eye out for The Kindergarten Teacher, especially if you have Gael-related interests. Or, you know, poetry.