Maggie Gyllenhaal is superb in this, the drama playing out all over her face and body.
She’s the titular educator, Lisa Spinelli, slightly bored at home in Statten Island with her doting but dull husband and rather too-typical teenage kids, but feeling rejuvenated by her evening poetry classes in Manhattan, run by a handsome Gael Garcia Bernal. He doesn’t much care for her haikus, though.
Lisa is sparked into life when she hears a five-year-old in her class mumbling a beautiful poem. Suddenly, she’s convinced little Jimi is the new Mozart. She tries out his poems in her class, passing them off as her own and gaining the admiring approval of the other students – and of Gabriel, too, of course.
But Lisa becomes obsessed with little Jimi, taking him out of class to coax more poetry out of him, badgering the nanny and his uncle, pestering his nightclub-owning, brash Dad to nurture this little poetic genius gem in a cruel modern world.
Gyllenhaal makes us care. Lisa’s awakening seems pure, driven by a love of art, by idealism and a jumble of other midlife frustrations, at first laudable and understandable, then becoming dangerous, ludicrously inappropriate and illegal.
Would she jeopardise her life and career for this child, a woman of 20 years’ teaching experience and a caring Mum? It’s been seen as obsession but it borders, very carefully, on paedophilia. Lisa’s needs turn physical. If this was a male character, the film would be a scandal. I still like the film very much – it is, to use a word Lisa jumps on in the script when her husband uses it: “disturbing”.