“The Kindergarten Teacher” — the dark new Netflix drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal — is about disenchanted teacher Lisa and her growing obsession with her student Jimmy Roy, who she believes is a poetry prodigy.
While the film is billed as a thriller, the movie fails to acknowledge how young Jimmy’s Indian-ness is erased and appropriated throughout this film and how that erasure would add to the discomfort of many viewers. Though “The Kindergarten Teacher” is clearly fictional, the disconnect between South Asian American students and teachers and school administrators is very real.
An English language remake of a 2015 Israeli film of the same name, the movie stars Gyllenhaal as a disenchanted 40-something kindergarten teacher living in New York City’s Staten Island. Frustrated with her life, marriage and teenage children, Gyllenhaal’s Lisa Spinelli channels all of her creative energy into a poetry class for nontraditional students that she attends at night.
That severe disenchantment and longing for a creative outlet are the reason why Lisa goes instantly on alert when she discovers her young Indian-American student Jimmy Roy (played by Parker Sevak) quietly reciting poems to himself. Jimmy, she convinces herself, is a poetry prodigy. In addition to that, she persuaded that no one in his orbit understands his talent except her.
Lisa’s fixation with Jimmy and his poems is instantly creepy. We soon see this grown woman leading the child away to talk about poetry in empty school bathrooms and other isolated areas. The viewer flinches when she gives the child her phone number and repeatedly ignores or undermines his babysitter and father. We won’t give anything away here but as RogerEbert.com reviewer Tomris Laffly points out, “In the film’s final act, which plays like a short thriller that can easily stand on its own, Lisa falls victim to her own arrogance.”
But while Jimmy Roy’s character is clearly written as Indian-American, his ethnicity, background and the cultural differences between him and his teacher Lisa are never addressed in the film. In addition to Jimmy’s Bengali surname, director Sara Colangelo makes it a point to introduce us to his uncle Sanjay (Samrat Chakrabarti) and his father Nikhil (Ajay Naidu). Jimmy’s home life, the film judgmentally tells us, is a troubled one. His mother is not in the picture and his father works all the time in the city at the club he owns.
The script tells us in a dozen different ways that Nikhil is a bad father, without ever considering just why a young single immigrant dad would need to work all the time or would define his hard work as essential to providing a good life for his child. Lisa, in other words, is a classic (though albeit extreme) example of a teacher who is extremely disconnected from the needs of her second generation students. Some reviewers instantly noted this glaring disconnect in their coverage of the film.
“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,” wrote critic Candice Frederick in The Week. “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.”
‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ has a race problem, writes @ReelTalker in her latest review. This film’s main character exploits a child of color — and no one talks about it. https://t.co/BI8rPq2Vit pic.twitter.com/CiK37q6TQI
— The Week (@TheWeek) October 12, 2018
The script for “The Kindergarten Teacher” also never acknowledges the rich history of Bengali poetry, even though the film seemingly made it a point to give Jimmy a Bengali surname. We learn that Jimmy’s uncle Sanjay takes the time to regularly read poems to his young nephew, but the film treats this as a fluke thing instead of an attempt by Sanjay to pass along beautiful poetic traditions that are hundreds of years old and an integral part of the culture he grew up in. Bengal, of course, was the home of Rabindranath Tagore and many of India’s greatest poets. Jimmy’s intellectual uncle Sanjay certainly knows this and yet his commitment to his nephew’s talents are dismissed by Lisa.
Lisa’s lack of thought to Jimmy’s heritage is starkly apparent in one small scene in particular. After interrogating Jimmy’s babysitter about his poems, the sitter admits the child often “makes up songs” to himself.
“They aren’t songs,” Lisa replied coldly. “They are poems.”
Her certainty is jarring because anyone who has any familiarity with South Asian poetic traditions knows that they can easily be both. If uncle Sanjay has been teaching Jimmy about ghazals and other poetic musical forms it would not be particularly strange if a precocious child like Jimmy would attempt to write a ghazal of his own. But two things are readily apparent about Lisa. The first is that she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is. The second is that she is one of those teachers who has never looked outside the Western literary canon and whose worldview reflects that accordingly.
The end result chills the viewer in a way that is far more intense than what was probably intended. “The Kindergarten Teacher…takes the white savior trope and shows you how it often comes off to most audiences of color: not that heartwarming,” reviewer Constance Gibbs points out in her review for SheKnows.
The new Netflix movie is a compelling drama, but it’s not exactly problem-free.https://t.co/TF5S6M6WZd
— SheKnows (@SheKnows) October 12, 2018
Scholar Punita C. Rice found that more than 8 out of ten South Asian American students report feeling that their K-12 teachers knew more about the backgrounds of their peers than their own. Lisa and her inability to think of Jimmy as anything more than a tool to break out of her limited life is the epitome of that.
After watching “The Kindergarten Teacher” I couldn’t help but imagine what a real-life Jimmy would remember about the creepy things described in the film as a grown up. It’s easy to picture Jimmy Roy growing up to be creative writing major (with perhaps an economics minor on the side as a peace offering to his dad.)
“Remember that white lady who thought she taught me about poems?” he asked would ask his uncle Sanjay during a visit home. They’d then both sigh and resume talking about their favorite Tagore verses while stirring their chai.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is now streaming on Netflix.