Baby Genius Gets a Superfan in The Kindergarten Teacher

Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center

The Kindergarten Teacher
Directed by Nadav Lapid
Opens July 31 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

While there’s no violence in Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, it’s one creepy film. Title character Nira (Sarit Larry) would be a great role for Isabelle Huppert if only the film were French. She’s passionate about poetry in a culture where no one seems to care much about anything but making money, and that makes her dangerous. She seems to have stepped into Tel Aviv out of a Michael Haneke or Roman Polanski film.

Refreshingly, The Kindergarten Teacher offers a view of Israeli society that sidesteps the usual clichés. There are no images of Benjamin Netanyahu ranting away. The film barely acknowledges the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it includes a black (possibly Ethiopian-Jewish) character and touches on the tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. (Nira is one of the latter.) At first, Nira seems like a devoted teacher with a sideline interest in poetry. Her five-year-old student Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) stands out to her as a precocious poet. Indeed, his odes to unrequited love—written by Lapid himself as a child—seem remarkably mature for his age, enough so that his nanny, who’s also an aspiring actress, uses them as texts for her auditions. Yoav’s father is a restaurant owner more interested in expanding his business than taking care of his son and he shows nothing but contempt for his brother’s work as a poet, which inspires Nira. Gradually, Nira’s obsession with Yoav’s talent grows increasingly personal and unhealthy.

Lapid often films Yoav from a low angle, as if trying to capture the boy from his own point of view. However, he doesn’t really try to explain the psychology of either lead character. Lapid himself has said that “Yoav reads reality in his own way, and I wanted the audience not to be sure how he perceives his poems and the act of writing them.” Nira’s determination to protect Yoav’s gift is admirable on some level; it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment where it becomes dangerous. For her, his writing fills some gap in her life—and, the film implies, in larger Israeli society, where even Nira’s poetry class ties itself in moralistic knots over Yoav’s poem about a bullfight. It’s hard to see how all this could resolve itself in some healthy manner. Sadly, Yoav seems like a pawn of adult interests all along—only in the final shot does he get a moment to himself.

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