An interview with The Kindergarten Teacher director Colangelo

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Is there still space for poetry in the modern world? American filmmaker Sara Colangelo believes so

Is there still space for poetry in the modern world? American filmmaker Sara Colangelo believes so.

In Colangelo's new movie, The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers a career-best performance as Lisa, a full-time educator and wannabe artist. By day, Lisa commands classrooms like a pro; by evening, she’s a frustrated writer whose contributions are dismissed by her poetry tutor. Then, one day, Lisa recognises a creative spark in her 5-year-old pupil Jimmy, and the line between cheerleading mentor and kidnapper becomes murkier and murkier.

Sara Colangelo director of The Kindergarten TeacherThe Kindergarten Teacher, then, is a provocative piece of work - the kind we desperately need in our cinema landscape. It starts out as a bittersweet drama and evolves into a jaw-dropping thriller. At all times, Colangelo and Gyllenhaal toy with the viewer’s emotions, eking out an argument that poetry can be a positive force for society - even as Lisa, its biggest supporter, steps into criminal, morally dubious territory. “With our gadgets, we’re bombarded constantly by data and information,” Colangelo sighs. “How do we create that Zen moment where we can sit and meditate on something? I felt a kinship with Lisa’s feeling that we don’t meditate about the words we use so much anymore. No knows how to spell anymore. Is that OK?”

Colangelo is speaking to us on the morning of The Kindergarten Teacher’s sold-out screening at the London Film Festival. It marks Colangelo’s second feature and earned her the Best Director prize at Sundance. Interestingly, she adapted the script from a 2014 Israeli movie by Nadav Lapid. “I love the original film,” Colangelo explains. “It had an allegorical, almost Greek tragedy element I loved. But I wanted to take the character and give her a little more agency. And, of course, the American setting - Trump’s America, where he’s defunding the NEA - was such ripe territory for me to look at, and the space - or lack of - that we give poetry.” In preparation, Colangelo revisited uncomfortable arthouse fare like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. She recalls watching Gyllenhaal attempting to sell the movie on American chat shows. “Maggie did an interview with Trevor Noah, and he was like, ‘What is this? A psychological thriller? A horror movie? A drama about a child genius?’ It doesn’t tick one box.”

Lisa’s aforementioned line-crossing occurs when she starts to pass off Jimmy’s musings as her own work. At Lisa’s poetry classes, run by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), everyone suddenly takes notice of this woman’s new voice - Simon even makes a romantic move on her. Then Lisa drags the kid to poetry readings, all against the parents’ wishes. It’s simultaneously an act of child abuse and a tragic cry for help on Lisa’s part. We’re both appalled and deeply moved. The tonal shift is, of course, deliberate. “We have a lot of slow zooms in the beginning that are hopeful in a subconscious way,” Colangelo notes. “Then it amps up in the second half as things get more tense. A lot of it comes from Maggie’s intensity. You can plan all you want, but there’s an alchemy and the visual language evolves - it’s beautiful when you don’t know how a film is going to end up.”

That said, it’s not all stylised for style’s sake. “It’s all rooted in the psychology of the character,” Colangelo says. Hopefully what makes this film interesting to folks is that Lisa starts out as the perfect teacher, and the colours are vivid. Then we move towards desaturating the look and making it a higher contrast, and making it feel lost in control.” As for discovering the child actor who plays Jimmy, Colangelo left it until two months before shooting. “Parker Sevak was actually a schoolmate of our casting director’s children,” she admits. So Colangelo was like a real-life Lisa? “Exactly,” she laughs. “He was the youngest of the kids we auditioned. There was a bit of fear. He’d never been on a set. But we put him on tape with Maggie; she would spontaneously recite poetry, and he had a beautiful way of engaging with the words and then seamlessly going back to script.”

For the poetry, Colangelo asked professionals, including Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbar, to contribute. Which means Lisa’s verses, which are mocked by her classmates, were penned by published writers. Does this prove that context shapes what we consider to be great poetry? “What’s so disturbing is that a lot of people think Lisa’s poetry is mediocre,” Colangelo says. ”People are allowed to not like a poem, of course. But her poetry is actually by a published poet. In the classroom, Gael’s character doesn’t give her much thought, and so the rest of the class follow suit. She then feels mediocre. The film is digging into these kinds of self-perceptions.” Since the movie’s festival run, Colangelo has been turning down offers to direct psychological thrillers. “I want to do something else,” she explains. “I made a movie called Little Accidents about a coal country, and suddenly I was getting offers to do things exactly like that. But you don’t want to do the same thing twice.” Would she allow a remake of Little Accidents? “Maybe directed by Michael Haneke,” she jokes. “No, but I’ve thought about making it a TV series. Maybe later in my career I’ll revisit it.”

the kindergarten teacher

Just before our conversation ends, I mention an observation about the London Film Festival’s line-up: several movies, including Burning and The Wild Pear Tree, are about novelists, but only The Kindergarten Teacher follows a poet. “I was really interested in poetry because there’s this invisibility to it,” Colangelo says, “and there’s something magical in the fact that you don’t know how the character of Jimmy is conjuring them. He’s almost in a trance-like state. I don’t know if the audience feels this way, but I wonder if it’s coming from him, or if it’s a mirage - and the whole thing is a projection of Lisa’s onto him.” She continues, “To me, poetry is about the invisible world, and it puts you in a specific emotional place. It inhabits the highest form of our human-ness. So much of the world right now is so literal and physical. With this film, I wanted to conjure up something invisible.”

So even if there’s no space for poetry in the modern world, we do at least have a film celebrating its spirit - and you have to admit, there’s something poetic about that.

The Kindergarten Teacher opens in UK cinemas on March 8