Israeli director Nadav Lapid takes an unusual premise and then rolls with it in "The Kindergarten Teacher," a second, more feminine film after the successful macho posturing of his striking debut, "Policeman."
Indeed, the titular protagonist is a teacher here and as such something of a substitute mother for all her charges, though Nira (Sarit Larry) starts to take a special interest in the diffident and shy-seeming little Yoav (Avi Schnaidman) when she hears him recite a poem while determinedly walking back and forth in the yard of the child care facility where she works.
Yoav's nanny, the aspiring actress Miri (played by singer-turned-actress Ester Rada), explains that the poem the five-year-old recites is actually his own and that she has the casual habit of using them during her own auditions, complete with fancy scarf play that plays up the drama of the poetry.
It just so happens that Nira and her husband (Lior Raz) have two children that aren't around much, with one in the army and the other at boarding school, that the chemistry with her husband seems to have mostly evaporated and that, most importantly, she's an aspiring poetess herself, with "aspiring" probably the operating word here, since early on she realizes that Yoav's poems are so much better than hers that she starts to pass them off as her own in her evening poetry classes.
It's clear the beauty and sheer talent on display -- a little suspension of disbelief is required here, as the poems are good but not quite exceptional, and reportedly written by the director when he was the same age as Yoav -- fill a void in Nira's life. Her pull is stronger than any sense of dignity or propriety. Even worse, she's willing to go very far to ensure that she's the one that gets to protect and look after the talented Wunderkind, starting with her surprising decision to make sure that Miri gets fired…for using Yoav's poems during her auditions.
This requires her to get into contact with the little boy's family, where, conveniently, any kind of mother figure is entirely lacking, his father is a famous, high-end restaurateur who has no time in his agenda for his son, much less for his whimsical interest in something as useless as poetry, and a journalist uncle who taught the little boy something about literature but who hasn't really been part of the family for a while.
While the basic setup of the drama would lead one to expect that the story will go into a kind of overblown substitute son/mother melodrama, Lapid has something else in mind entirely. His Nira, incarnated more than played by theater actress Larry, is almost like the movie's Salieri character from Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus" (later adapted for the screen by Milos Forman): someone whose own artistic work is mediocre-to-good but who, quite maddeningly, is instantly able to recognize true greatness in others, and may not even recognize it themselves since it comes to them so effortlessly.
Overall, the film is about both the void that poetry -- and, more generally, beauty and art -- can fill in one's life. It's also study of how the few sensitive souls aware of what art can do aren't necessarily those able to make it themselves.
With the added caretaker/child relationship at the heart of the film, the idea of "nurturing talent" also surfaces, and Nira does her best to introduce various concepts to the child in ways he can understand them, such as explaining evil by simply crushing an ant for no apparent reason.
What Yoav himself -- portrayed with a surly intensity by Schnaidman -- thinks of all this is left largely and very much intentionally unexplored, as Lapid keeps the camera very close to his adult protagonist's point-of-view almost throughout the film, as if to suggest that, even if Nira is trying to absorb someone else's words and art, she does have her own point of view — one that's more mundane but nevertheless hers alone.
"Kindergarten" premiered at Cannes' Critics Week section last week. With its fantastic performances and intriguing premise, it should be able to score some arthouse action in at least New York prior to a life in the digital marketplace. Meanwhile, further festival play awaits.