The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher [2018]

Nadav Lapid’s acclaimed but low-profile 2014 film The Kindergarten Teacher might not seem an obvious candidate for a remake. But a producer on Lapid’s film, Talia Kleinhendler, knew that the story—about a 5-year-old wunderkind poet whose talent is seen and nurtured by his teacher, until her care for him turns into an obsession—could resonate with more diverse, audiences around the world. All the reviews were glowing, and thrillers are historically successful at the international box office, yet getting people to buy tickets for a “poetry thriller” could be a hard sell. But what if the film had an American director and a recognizable American star?

Kleinhendler approached director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents) with the idea of adapting it for Americans. The thought of remaking a film that Colangelo already considered flawless was daunting; if this adaptation was going to work, she believed she would have to make the film more American and change its point of view, expanding the main character of the teacher and casting Maggie Gyllenhaal. “Maggie’s intensity on the screen can go either way,” from sincere to dangerous, Colangelo says.

“Nadav’s version is about masculinity and art in a country at war and the challenges of that,” Colangelo says. “And his version was autobiographical—he was a child poet—so the child character has a lot of agency, and the camera is low, at his POV. I wanted to get into the teacher’s head more, get into her psyche and put her on planet Earth with a little more agency and boldness.”

The cinematographic style of Colangelo’s version reflects that element of earthiness. In its opening sequence, Gyllenhaal as kindergarten teacher Lisa enters a classroom and prepares for the day. Pastels overwhelm the color palette, and the camera often stays back in the corners of the room, organically finding Lisa as she goes about her day, singing songs and teaching the alphabet. As Lisa begins paying special attention to poetry prodigy Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), she’s often seen tending to the classroom window garden, touching the plants, watering them, asking little Jimmy to smell and identify them. Lisa is grounded in Colangelo’s version, where as her counterpart in Nadav’s film feels a bit more ethereal.

The Kindergarten Teacher Nadav Lapid

The Kindergarten Teacher [2014]

In pursuing this lighter, more naturalistic feel, Colangelo and DP Pepe Avila del Pino used a shallow depth of focus in the early scenes, but as Lisa increasingly latches onto the boy and his artistic talent, the camera angles become odd, the colors more saturated. The anamorphic lenses warp the sides of the frame so that there is never a straight line, and Lisa is often at the edge of the screen. This cinematography is somewhat similar to Lapid’s—he builds an askew world through slightly “off” framing—and both films’ anxiety and plausibility are sold through that visual aesthetic. There’s not a scene in either of these films that doesn’t feel foreboding. (Lapid, who visited the set of Colangelo’s film and is credited as a producer, is currently editing his next feature.)

In Colangelo’s version, that off-kilter quality led to more than a few uncomfortable rounds of laughter during its Sundance premiere last Friday. Gyllenhaal’s Lisa is alarmingly earnest, telling Jimmy’s nanny, uncle, and father that the child’s poetry is “being lost,” because there is no one there to write it down. She’s agitated, nearly panicking, and they’re reacting how many typical Americans would when told a 5-year-old was the verse equivalent of Mozart—a smile and a brush-off.

“Maggie and I were sitting together at the premiere, and there were moments where I felt heartbroken for Lisa, but people were laughing, which also broke my heart,” Colangelo says. She felt inexplicably connected to Lisa, who yearns to be taken seriously, but whose intensity is too much for people—specifically Americans who think of poetry as a joke. Even if Colangelo didn’t write the script to be funny, she understood the laughter of the Sundance audience. She remembers the quite different reception Lapid’s film got when she saw it at the Film Society of Lincoln Center: there, the teacher’s obsessive devotion to art was perhaps seen through a different lens across cultures, as something profound though eccentric. American audiences, she thought, might chuckle at people being serious about poetry.

Colangelo’s version is culturally specific in its own way, grounded in contemporary American reality. In an interview with Variety, Gyllenhaal described the film as “about a female artist who is driven crazy by the culture that she lives in.” And while Lapid focuses on an Israeli teacher, student, and family, Colangelo felt the need to write Jimmy as a child of immigrants. “It’s set in New York City, so that’s not a stretch but reality.” The father is a self-made nightclub owner, not stupid or unthinking, but focused specifically on educating his son to have a lucrative career, which is many an American immigrant’s practical goals.

The Kindergarten Teacher Colangelo

Sara Colangelo

Lapid’s film also makes war feel omnipresent; Colangelo portrays this a little differently, reflecting the luxury most Americans enjoy of not having to be in close proximity to a war. In her film, Lisa has two teenaged children and a husband. Her son has been accepted into college, but he wants to join the Marines, despite Lisa lecturing him on what he would actually be doing overseas—killing people for oil. In contrast, in Israel, military service is required and simply a way of life for citizens, many of whom (including the new Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) see it as a point of pride.

Despite the cultural divide, both films find the beauty and urgency in poetry. Unlike Lapid, who wrote the poems that appear in his film, Colangelo—a poetry lover but not necessarily a poet—tapped immigrant poets Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbarto pen some poignant verse. “Poetry is a joke to some people, but I also realize there are lovers of poetry all over this country,” Colangelo says. “I love it, Maggie loves it, Gael [García Bernal] loves it. There are people who just love it and hold poems so close to their hearts. Hopefully, hearing poetry in a film will awaken something in people and get people talking about poetry again.”

Like many, Colangelo worries about the slashing of funds for artists and is anxious about how this will shape generations to come. For all their differences, both Lapid’s and Colangelo’s films ask a serious, pertinent question: where is the space for art?

The Kindergarten Teacher premieres January 19 at the Library and screens again January 20, 21, 25, and 27.

April Wolfe is a film critic, reporter and filmmaker. She was formerly the lead critic for LA Weekly.