- Is it a fable?
- Maybe a cautionary tale?
- A royally screwed up character study?
The Kindergarten Teacher, an Israeli film that's been polarizing festival audiences since debuting at Cannes last year, isn't hard to summarize story wise, but conveying what it's actually trying to say let alone describing what it feels like to see it is a little more complicated. Regardless of how you respond to the thorny issues it raises, it's safe to say there's nothing quite like it currently out in theaters.
The film portrays Nira (Sarit Larry), the titular Tel Aviv educator who's really good at her job, as a woman who's frustrated by the lack of intellectual stimulation in her life. She's certainly not receiving it at home, where she lives with her husband (Lior Raz), an engineer, and their daughter. (Their grown up son is finishing his year in the Army and is contemplating a career in the Israeli Defense Forces.) Moms and nannies compliment her way with kids, but she seems to be going through the motions, content enough in her marriage and career, but not fulfilled.
Then one of her students starts spontaneously spewing out short poems. And it rocks her world.
That would be 5 year old Yoav (saucer eyed Avi Shnaidman), quiet and withdrawn, at least whenever he's not shouting anti-Semitic football chants with a buddy. And then when you least expect, he appears to go into a trance, begins to pace back and forth, and out come the verses: random, evocative, decidedly beyond his years. (A sample: “Hagar is beautiful enough, enough for me, enough for me, gold rain falls over her house, it is truly the sun of God.”)
Nira takes it upon himself to nurture the child's creative impulse, an endeavor that proceeds to consume her life. At her poetry class, she passes off the kid's poems as her own, to equal measures praise and disdain from her peers. Her endgame initially appears to be personal acclaim, but she's actually setting the stage for the pint sized author's coming out party. And that's when things get really interesting. (Avoid the trailer, which delves into the film's third act and makes it seem like a psychological thriller, which it is not.)
Writer director Nadav Lapid gives viewers a front row view of this budding teacher pupil relationship, forcing us to view the world from their vantage point. Camera placement plays an important role here, and cinematographer Shai Goldman (The Band's Visit) rises to the aesthetic challenge with some unusual, expertly executed point of view framing. Through her own quest to find out what makes Yoav tick, MIA mother, workaholic restaurateur dad Lapid pieces together a portrait of a society that values conformity, abiding by the status quo, at the expense of individuality. “He's a poet in an era that hates poets,” says Nira of her prodigious protégé.
But here's the thing about The Kindergarten Teacher: The more it reveals about its unpredictable characters, the more confounding it becomes. It's a mystery in reverse, laying out its narrative in clear terms as the characters' behavior becomes increasingly stranger. A viewer's instinct to glean meaning out of what's unfolding onscreen almost involuntarily kicks in, and yet any attempts to look for symbolism or an allegory feels like going on a wild goose chase, especially when considering Yoav's poetry hardly comes across as the work of a child genius.
It's apparent The Kindergarten Teacher will resonate differently with an Israeli crowd, but Lapid's themes cross international borders. The movie is reportedly inspired by the filmmaker's own childhood he claims he was an impromptu bard when he was little and indeed, this feels like the work of someone who used to be a precocious wunderkind. It's an intriguing paradox he pulls off: He's made a meditation on authorship that's at once crystal-clear and mystifying. He makes you demand to know what happens next, because even as it grows more and more perplexing, the movie is never less than fascinating, right up to its WTF finale.
The Kindergarten Teacher is now showing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.