The Kindergarten Teacher has a race problem
The lonely and restless wife is a common trope in film. We've seen it in Unfaithful, Revolutionary Road, and Notes on a Scandal, to name a few examples. But while these characters are often bored, their stories are almost never boring. She usually spends her idle time participating in activities that straddle the line between unbridled fun and criminal activity. In The Kindergarten Teacher, it is most certainly the latter. In this film, however, the protagonist's worst crime is the exploitation of a child of color. And yet, this travesty goes entirely unmentioned in the film; it is but a tool for advancing the plot, a stepping stone on the path to the white protagonist's redemption. As a black woman, this was the first thing I saw — and the last thing I remembered — about the film, and it irked me.
The Kindergarten Teacher, which was adapted from the original Israeli movie of the same name, begins with a familiar story: Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a married mother of two rebellious teenage children who disregard her every word. Her husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), is a loving father and companion who, like Lisa, has resolved himself to the monotony of daily life. When Lisa tells him she's started taking a poetry class to fill her idle time, he merely flashes an empty smile. The trouble is that she's not a very good poet — even her instructor tells her so. But Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a 5-year-old student of Indian descent in her kindergarten class, is. Lisa decides to write down some of the child's unrefined prose and present it as her own. Her teacher loves it. What begins as genuine admiration of her young student's talent quickly turns into a reckless hijacking of it.
In the film, writer/director Sara Colangelo asks the viewer to ponder whether one can appreciate someone else's work while simultaneously using it for your own gain. That's a fine question to ask, but in this case, it reveals a huge blind spot for Colangelo because it ignores Jimmy's race. As a white female filmmaker, perhaps she simply chose not to confront an area she might have been unfamiliar with. But Lisa's audacity to use her listlessness to justify taking advantage of a defenseless student whose ethnicity likely already disenfranchises him betrays an immense level of white privilege on behalf of her character. Historically, there have been claims by parents that children of color receive a lesser education than their white counterparts — no matter their grades or behavior. But rather than the film acknowledging Jimmy's statistical marginalization as a child of color in the American school system, his character's perspective is usurped by Lisa's own desperation to find success even if it means exploiting a young talent.
Lisa's white female gaze, directed through the lens of Colangelo's, does a disservice to many viewers of color whose experiences more closely parallel that of Jimmy. I grew up in the public school system, where educators would often treat students of color differently. I cringed watching Lisa deliberately use her power to suppress the talent of a child she is supposed to be amplifying. While there is a scene later in the film when she finally allows Jimmy to present his own work at her class recital, even then she showcases him not as a talented child, but like a trophy she's proud to pull out of her pocket. Rather than speaking for itself, his talent is a representation of her own merit.
While it's totally understandable that Lisa, as the protagonist, is the centerpiece of the story, there should be some responsibility on behalf of the filmmaker to illuminate Jimmy's perspective, which could further serve to make what Lisa does even that more detestable while still sparking debate. Lisa's obsessive need for Jimmy to somehow validate her worth escalates to the point where she kidnaps him in a wild attempt to win back his good graces after his dad removes him from her school. This effectively diminishes Jimmy's point of view so that the question becomes less about him as a victim of educational theft — heightened by the fact that he's a child of color — and more about him being a mere consequence of Lisa's downward spiral. We're told this is a story about the maddening depth of a white woman's idleness, and this negates how her actions harm anyone on her path — a young boy of color in particular.
All too often white feminism, as portrayed on the silver screen, highlights female complexity at the detriment of non-white characters. The Kindergarten Teacher is, unfortunately, no exception.