Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) teaches children at a kindergarten, hoping to shape young minds for a brighter future, but one mind in particular has begun to intrigue her. She always wanted to be a writer, even a great writer, and is attending evening classes in poetry for her further education she feels she didn't get enough of while she was younger, but what if she discovered a real talent in her class? Not her night class, her kindergarten class? This appears to be the case when she finds a poem penned by a little boy called Jimmy (Parker Sevak) and is impressed by its quality, wanting to encourage him to write more. Yet is she pursuing this for his benefit or her own?
This was based on an Israeli film from four years before, but director and re-writer Sara Colangelo put her own spin on it by presenting her insight into her protagonist's mothering instincts which prove to be her downfall. In Gyllenhaal she had a real bonus, for she was an actress who could play both warm and welcoming when called for, yet also downright creepy should the role require it, always grounded in a reality that would rarely have you questioning her choices. In this she had to essay both and did it so well that she tended to overshadow everyone else in the film, to the extent of drowning out even accomplished performers like Gael García Bernal, who played her tutor.
In other hands this could have been a quirky comedy of embarrassment as Lisa gets in over her head during her pursuit of the intellectual, but the fact that these poems Jimmy conjures up could have contained a simple artistry, yet could in addition been the burblings of a child who has no real grasp of what he is saying, created an off-kilter mood that made the viewer uneasy. You had to adjust to the film's careful pace first, as this was not the "Teacher from Hell" horror that it would likely have been tooled into had it been made in the nineteen-nineties, despite the plot sharing many of those sorts of paranoia, but rest assured, Lisa did not resort to killing anyone to get her twisted way.
The thing was, her intentions were not completely reprehensible. Her own teenage children are doing well in their schooling, but have no intellectual "curiosity" as she continually puts it, they would not read a volume of poetry in a million years, and appear to have a disdain for anything but the most superficial pastimes, for them learning is simply a method of getting good grades which will come in useful later on, but no more than that. In fact, Lisa's son wants to join the Army, which is the ultimate horror for her. Therefore a sense that the barbarians are at the gates was palpable throughout the story, but the equal feeling that there is nothing you can constructively do to halt them in their anti-intellectual progress was also a pressing concern, leading the teacher to desperation.
What do you do when even your kids are part of the problem, is something Lisa is coming around to fret over, but her solution, to encourage Jimmy, is not exactly a useful one when it encourages Lisa herself into a crusade, an obsession. That we are largely in the dark over whether her perception of the little boy stems from her suppressed panic or whether he really is someone with an ability to he nurtured and protected was the cause of increasing tension, and while you may sympathise with Lisa and her worries for the world, it could be frustrating that the film offered no reassurance to her or to the audience. Therefore a note of snobbery could be detected, sort of moving towards "Oh, if you like this film you can see the problem, not like those ignorant slobs who want car chases in their movies," but that these kinds of films were able to find their audience surely indicated the battle for the minds of the world was not lost yet. For all those reservations, there was abundant food for thought here, which was as it should be. Music by Asher Goldschmidt.
[Thunderbird's Blu-ray has a near-hour-long interview with Gyllenhaal as an extra.]