“The Kindergarten Teacher” and the Frustrations of Being An Artist

Netflix’s Maggie Gyllenhaal-led film is a character study of a woman who struggles with the frustrations of being an artist.

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Released on October 12th, Netflix’s The Kindergarten Teacher follows the life of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lisa Spinelli, a gentle and attentive kindergarten teacher who takes a continuing-studies poetry seminar at night. Her life suddenly changes when she discovers that one of the children in her class, Jimmy, is a gifted poet, able to compose entire poems seemingly at an instance, which puts her own already-rudimentary poetry to shame.

She doesn’t mind, though; she’s content with being the one-person support system she thinks he needs. “Mozart was nurtured by Kings and Queens. They massaged his tired hands, they fed him candy while he played the piano”, she tells Jimmy’s uncaring, practical father. “Jimmy doesn’t have that.” So Lisa becomes that for Jimmy, transcribing Jimmy’s poems when they come to him, bringing him to poetry readings, taking him on field trips to see the beauties of the world, all “in the name of his talent.”

Here, Lisa is faced with many conflicts and frustrations that are perhaps best understood by those daring enough to call themselves artists:

“How does this person create such amazing work so effortlessly?”

This is one of the first frustrations that Lisa faces, and I think it’s also the most common, not just among creatives, but anyone doing anything. Early on in the movie, we see Lisa on the ferry, notebook open, deep in thought, pen in hand. We soon learn that she’s composing poems for her poetry class.

Contrast this with how Jimmy composes his poems — a seemingly trance-like state that he enters at a moment’s notice, elegant line followed by elegant line as he paces back and forth, no notepad and no hesitation — and it’s hard not to empathize with Lisa, who works and works at it, but just can’t get there. Some people just have it.

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What makes it worse for Lisa is that she wants to be a poet so much more than Jimmy does, but she just doesn’t have the talent that Jimmy does. The only glory she can touch is in her poetry class, where she reads Jimmy’s poems after tacitly implying that she wrote them, soaking in the adulation, briefly feeling like the praise is for her and not Jimmy.

“Nobody understands my art.”

Yet another frustration that isn’t as exclusive to artists as it may seem. For Lisa, this extends to all art, and not just hers. She’s annoyed with the current state of the world, with art and intellect shun aside for technology. Nobody around her seems to understand the value and importance of good poetry. Her children think her poetry classes are stupid and her husband is only superficially-supportive.

Jimmy is the only one who gets it. She feels more connected to Jimmy than she does her own husband and children, stopping in-the-moment sex to take a call from Jimmy so she can transcribe his poem without losing it to the void and abandoning her family to nurture Jimmy’s talent, because Jimmy appears to be the only person who appreciates art, and beauty, and poetry, the way she does.

“Am I really an artist?”

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A long-standing quality associated with writers is that we’re always insecure about our work, and because our work can often be intensely personal, we often believe that we are our work, which means “This is garbage” can quickly turn into “I’m a garbage writer.” We doubt our best work, we agonize over the worst, and we question our place in the pantheon of our contemporaries.

For Lisa, this is compounded with the fact that she is witness to Jimmy’s talent, which inevitably forces her to compare herself to Jimmy. After her poetry class instructor discovers that the best poems Lisa has been reading in class were actually Jimmy’s, he hurls the deepest-cutting insult possible to her: “What’s clear is that you’re not an artist. You’re just an art appreciator. A dilettante. It’s very different, don’t you think?”

The Kindergarten Teacher is about a woman that yearns to be considered an artist, who then meets a young boy who has everything she needs to get to where she wants to get to. This is then complicated by the fact that she’s his teacher, as well as the circumstances of her own life, and seemingly by her own place in the world of artists, except her frustrations are not quite universal. We’ve all been dumbfounded by someone’s ability to doing something in a way that we never could. We all want to be understood. We all want to feel like we belong. Perhaps artists just feel it on a different level. That would make sense. Can real art exist without emotion?

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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