I spent the weekend watching two new movies that star the Gyllenhaal siblings: The Kindergarten Teacher, starring Maggie and Wildlife, with Jake. In both films, I thought the Gyllenhaals were especially well cast. I know they aren’t to everyone’s taste — and when I got home my husband and I got into a debate about whether or not Jake Gyllenhaal is actually a good actor — but I found them both to be pretty magnetic and appealingly odd. Neither really melt into a role and both have a way of throwing things off-kilter. So, they need the right movies for their talent.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Maggie Gyllenhaal at center of The Kindergarten Teacher. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, and adapted from an Israeli film of the same name, it tells the story of a kindergarten teacher, Lisa, who becomes obsessed with one of her students, a boy named Jimmy who writes poetry beyond his years. She discovers his literary gifts accidentally, when she overhears him composing a poem out loud while he waits for his babysitter to pick him up. She writes it down and is touched by its simple beauty. Later, she takes the poem to her poetry class — a continuing education class of adults — and passes it off as her own. It’s not clear if she’s trying to impress her teacher (the always-charming Gael Garcia Bernal), or if she’s seeking outside confirmation of Jimmy’s talent. What’s obvious is that Lisa at a point of crisis and confusion in her life, and that she’s willing to cross boundaries as she searches for—what? Well, for all sorts of things: meaning, beauty, adventure, excitement, romance, youth . . . a whole other version of her life.
In addition to being a kindergarten teacher and a poetry student, Lisa is the mother of two teenage children who are pulling away from her and sometimes outright rejecting her even as they need her to continue to be the stable, sensible person that she’s always been. Lisa responds with disappointment, complaining about what she perceives as their ordinariness. She wants them to be more creative, but they brush off her criticism, realizing that it’s a projection. They’re smart, confident kids, and it’s clear that Lisa has been a good mother to them. She’s also shown to be a good teacher. Gyllenhaal does a wonderful job of showing her character’s bedrock competence, and then revealing the cracks that are beginning to show.
As the film made its way toward the dénouement, with Lisa taking more and bigger risks, I wasn’t sure how far she would go. There was an uneasy erotic element throughout, as Lisa falls in love with Jimmy’s talent, and seems confused as the whether or not she wants to protect and nurture it or possess it by any means. (As a side note, the poems that Colangelo used were genuinely captivating, apparently culled from a mix of mostly adult poets, although one poem was written by the daughter of a friend.) By the end of the film, Lisa seems quite unhinged, and yet the final frame and line of dialogue suggest that her project to protect Jimmy isn’t quite as irrational as it seems.
Wildlife also centers on a mother in crisis: Jeanette Brinson, beleaguered wife of Jerry Brinson, who can’t keep a job to save his life — or his marriage. Jeanette is played by Carey Mulligan, Jerry by Jake Gyllenhaal, and together they are a couple who have seen better days. You get the sense that they worked quite well when they were young and full of potential, but over time, they’ve grown impatient with each other and with their poverty. Jeanette is tired of moving around, of renting, of not having any professional or community status. Jerry is resentful, sick of being beholden to men who are richer than him. He’s embarrassed that he can’t afford to provide for his family, and forces Jeannette to play the middle-class role of stay-at-home wife even though they can’t afford it and she doesn’t want to, anyway. Their 15-year-old son, Joe, is witness to their unhappiness, and the film is mostly from his point of view.
Wildlife is based on the Richard Ford novel of the same title, and was adapted and directed by Paul Dano, with Zoe Kazan sharing a screenplay writing credit. Although this is Dano’s passion project and vision, Kazan, who is Dano’s partner, made significant contributions to the screenplay. In an interview with Marc Maron, she explained that Dano had fallen in love with the novel and written the first draft of the screenplay himself. But when Kazan read it, she thought it needed major revision and offered to rewrite the whole thing. The couple then went back and forth, revising each other’s drafts. The script is spare but evocative, and for me, it brought to mind Ford’s recent memoir about his parents, Between Them. Kazan said (during the Maron interview) that she felt that the novel neglected Jeanette’s character, somewhat, so she made an effort to bring her out in the screenplay.
That decision served the movie very well; Jeanette is the smoldering, complicated, furious person at the center of the story. She has arrived in midlife only to discover that she doesn’t know herself at all– and that her husband doesn’t himself very well, either. The major difference between them is that she wants to find out who she is, while Jerry would be fine with a good-paying job. Gyllenhaal’s essential vulnerability is perfect for this role, because you never really hate Jerry — and neither does, Jeanette, even as she realizes, over the course of the movie, that it’s over between them.