Why you should care
Poetry is a double-edged sword in The Kindergarten Teacher.
It took Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Policeman a full three years to graduate from the international festival circuit to a stateside theatrical release. One can only hope that his sophomore effort, The Kindergarten Teacher, will have a quicker transition. Centered on a teacher in Tel Aviv who becomes fixated on a poetically inclined 5-year-old student, Lapid’s latest film trades the intense violence of his procedural thriller for a more restrained story, albeit one that hums with just as much inner tumult.
Yoav, the student poet in question, isn’t your average prodigy. Outside of writing his poems — which appear to flow out of him as though he were an unwitting medium — he displays little overt interest in the form. He spends recess stomping around with a friend rather than with his nose buried in a Walt Whitman collection. (His verses, it’s worth pointing out, were penned by none other than a young Lapid himself.) Nira, his teacher, may well be projecting qualities onto the child more than she cares to admit — she’s struck by both the drudgery of daily life and the transcendent beauty that stands out from it.
But Nira’s ultimate intentions for his talents are dubious at best.
An acute sensitivity to such things can make it difficult to function in everyday life, as Nira’s increasingly ill-advised decisions soon make plain. At first she merely passes out some of Yoav’s compositions as her own at a poetry workshop, curious to see how her fellow scribes will interpret them. Her efforts to shepherd Yoav’s burgeoning talents by bringing him to a reading are met with indifferent acceptance by the child himself and, once Yoav’s father finds out, a threat to call the police. Our heroine remains undaunted.
The Kindergarten Teacher is a true slow burn, with Nira treating her student the way a Jedi would treat a force-sensitive padawan in the Star Wars movies: Yoav’s midi-chlorian count is indeed off the charts. But her ultimate intentions for his talents are dubious at best. Nira plays her cards close to her chest, gesturing toward increasingly misguided motivations but, for a while at least, managing not to go off the deep end. We’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and drop it eventually does.
The film was well suited to its recent place in the New Directors/New Films festival, a New York City film event that showcases promising first- and second-time filmmakers. Writing about ND/NF for Fandor, Jordan Cronk notes that, while The Kindergarten Teacher is “a less elaborate, and certainly less searing, work” than Lapid’s Policeman, it “integrates a greater index of themes and ideas into its highly self-reflexive framework.”
It would be easy to resort to cheap sentimentality when espousing the visceral power of poetry; Lapid avoids this trap by treating the artistic temperament as a double-edged sword: Truth and beauty are noble pursuits, but not at the expense of functioning as a healthy adult. In this way, The Kindergarten Teacher is closer to something like Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry than it is to Dead Poets Society — there are no grand gestures here, just a gradual decline that pen and paper can slow for only so long.