If someone ever decides to make a movie called A Simple Woman, it probably won’t star Maggie Gyllenhaal. Purposefully or not, the actress has spent nearly her entire career playing characters that defy convention or easy categorization, from the eager BDSM neophyte in 2002’s surreal black comedy Secretary to her Golden Globe-nominated turn as a self-determined prostitute on the current HBO series The Deuce.
On paper, there’s nothing especially distinctive about her title role in writer-director Sara Colangelo’s prickly, unsettling arthouse drama The Kindergarten Teacher: Lisa Spinelli spends her days doling out juice cups and paintbrushes to her tiny charges, and her evenings at home in Staten Island with her kind, rumpled husband (Michael Chernus) and two teenage children. The kids at school look at her benignly, like a sort of human pillow with snacks; her own treat her mostly with distracted indifference or outright disdain.
It’s clear, though that Lisa burns for something more: She’s become devoted to the adult-education poetry course she takes after work, led by a dreamy, melodically accented instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal). But even her best efforts fall flat; her classmates see her work as common and derivative, lacking voice, and her only other audience is her supportive but hapless husband.
In other words, she’s just one of a million anonymous dreamers failing to translate their aspirations into art, until the day she hears her 5-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak) mumbling words to himself that sound a lot like a poem — a really good one. And so she grasps onto it, and to him, with the outsize passion of a true believer.
Colangelo (Little Accidents) has a gift for conveying a sort of feverish, disquieting intimacy onscreen, and a lot of ideas — some more clarifying than others — about the ways humans sublimate their desires and seek redemption, often impossibly, in other people. And Gyllenhaal, bright-eyed and brittle, brings her signature intensity to the role, though Lisa’s true inner world remains murky; it’s never quite clear if she’s just deeply unhappy or certifiably ill. Instead, the movie remains an intriguing but ambiguous portrait of a flawed, fascinating woman who knows herself either too well or not at all. B