January 23, 2018

ShowbuzzDaily Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “American Animals” & “The Kindergarten Teacher”


AMERICAN ANIMALS (no distrib):  It’s not easy to come up with a new spin on the venerable heist movie genre, but writer/director Bart Layton has managed just that with American Animals.  Layton had been until now a documentarian, and here he intercuts between his dramatized version of a real life robbery in which four college students targeted rare books by Audubon and Darwin worth millions, with actual interviews he conducted with the criminals themselves (and a few others).  The result isn’t just a rousing and sometimes very funny thriller, but a commentary on fiction vs. reality and on the difficulty of pinning reality down at all, since often the interviewees here disagree about key elements of their own story.  This is Layton’s first try at directing actors, and he seems to be a natural, with turns by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson that aren’t overshadowed even when they’re contradicted by their living counterparts.  (Ann Dowd, as ever, is also splendid in a small but key role.)  Sharply edited by Chris Gill, and with some particularly effective use of musical needle-drops, American Animals makes its meta-ness work in its favor.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (no distrib):  Sarah Colangelo’s adaptation of an Israeli drama gives Maggie Gyllenhaal the opportunity to take center stage for an intense character study.  She plays Lisa Spinelli, a New York public school teacher who discovers that Jimmy, an often inexpressive 5-year old in her class, may be a poetry prodigy, a veritable Mozart able to summon powerful form and imagery seemingly out of nothing.  Lisa packs all of her yearnings and dissatisfactions with her own life into Jimmy, in increasingly damaging and obsessive ways.  The Kindergarten Teacher is a very tiny film that isn’t likely to find much audience interest, and plot developments late in the story become contrived to the point of being unconvincing.  Jimmy, as well, is conceived as such a blank slate that he’s more a premise than a person.  But Lisa is a full-blooded, complicated creation, and Gyllenhaal plays her to the hilt, emotionally comprehensible even as the character veers toward self-destruction and heartbreak.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."