The Kindergarten Teacher Goes Rogue

Christopher Benek

When New York kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) believes she’s identified a child prodigy in her class she becomes obsessed with trying to provide him the proper care to advance his gifts. Bored with her middle-class existence, Spinelli fixates on the poetic genius of 5-year-old Jimmy Roy. It is through this lens that the film explores the dangers of how obsession can cause people to fail to create proper boundaries when seeking to foster creativity.

What makes The Kindergarten Teacher special is that it persuades the viewer to buy into the perspective that Jimmy’s gifts need to be cultivated for his benefit, and for the world. It creates a narrative that makes the spectator not want to miss out on the experience that this child can provide for them or culture. In so doing Jimmy ultimately is dehumanized because his gift becomes his perceived value not his personhood.

By contrast, Spinelli has so lost her sense of self-worth that she is using Jimmy’s poetry as a way to escape her own life that she perceives as mundane. She uses his work to gain esteem from peers and even attract a sexual partner outside of her marriage. So fascinated by the power and allure of Jimmy’s gift, she quickly surrenders her own boundaries in exchange for experiences that his gift can bring her.

The excellence of the film is that it shows how, even when we convince ourselves that our own intentions are pure, we can easily start down a slippery slope of bad decisions by failing to properly manage our own holistic health. There are multiple points in the film when the actions of Spinelli make the viewer want to gasp as a result of the inappropriateness of her actions. Yet, at the same time, Gyllenhaal does a masterful job of luring the observer into her character’s perspective to create an unsettling empathetic reaction.

With a running time of 97 minutes this is a film that definitely is a conversation starter.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. At what point do you think that a fascination with “helping a child to succeed” actually has a negative impact on a child?

Q2. How do you daily seek to foster holistic health so as to avoid accidentally sliding down unethical slippery slopes that may be present in your own context?

Q3. In what ways do you think that adults most often project their own desires and needs onto children so as to live vicariously through them?