Certain to be detested by kindergarten teachers everywhere, Sara Colangelo's is-she-really-doing-that? queasy-comedy The Kindergarten Teacher is so consummately cringe-inducing that you might have to peek at it through hands clasped over your eyes. I call it a quease-comedy because I laughed, a lot, although I seemed to be the only person in the screening room doing so. But it's something more rich and unsettling than so flip to suggest a coinage. Writer-director Colangelo's second feature is often disquieting, verging at times into thriller territory. It toys with a big-idea question -- what would you do if you thought you knew a Mozart-like child genius whose family didn't support the kid's gift? — but even more purposefully is toying with us. Just how many terrible choices are you willing to forgive a protagonist with whom you emphasize?
The teacher in question, played by an excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal, takes an insistent interest in the life and (apparent) art of 5-year-old student Jimmy (Parker Sevak), who occasionally goes into a shuffling trance and mumble-recites evocative verses of his own invention. Lisa, the teacher, jots one down and passes it off as her own in her continuing education poetry workshop, winning the admiration of her foxy instructor, Gael Garcia Bernal.
So Lisa dedicates herself to shaking some more lines out of the kid. But slowly, murkily, Lisa's motivation blossoms from self-aggrandizement to something more zealous: She's not just impressing her own teacher, she's keeping the light of genius lit for the benefit of humanity. (Which, of course, is even more self-aggrandizing.) The Kindergarten Teacher dares us to work out for ourselves, from moment to moment, whether Lisa is a hero, a monster or something in-between.