Film review by Helen O’Hara
Where does the line fall between selfless assistance and obsession? That’s the question raised by this thorny drama. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s teacher Lisa Spinelli is a vaguely dissatisfied wife and mother who struggles in the poetry classes she takes with charismatic lecturer Simon (Gael García Bernal). But everything changes when she hears Jimmy (Parker Sevak), one of her pupils, reciting a poem he has written. She becomes convinced that he is a prodigy and believes she must nurture his talent, whatever it takes.
Director Sara Colangelo avoids easy answers as Lisa goes to more and more extreme lengths to clear a path for Jimmy’s genius – if that’s what it is. Maybe his verse is a six-year-old’s nonsense, and Lisa and her friends are just pseuds for admiring it. Does Jimmy even want to be a poetry protégé? Regardless, Lisa sees herself as his svengali, basking in reflected glory even as she bitterly accepts her own limitations. There are shades of ‘Amadeus’ in her mania, with the major added wrinkle of an adult exploiting a tiny child.
While the young Sevak is very good, Colangelo mainly follows Gyllenhaal’s Lisa as she pursues her passion for excellence straight into disaster. It’s a quiet film that offers a powerful look at the heavy expectations we place on children and the inevitable disappointments of adult life. It’s also a powerful reminder that we need to be alert enough to balance the two.