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Leominster Native Takes Bow at Sundance

October 9, 2018

Director Sara Colangelo poses for a portrait to promote the film, "The Kindergarten Teacher," at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19 in Park City, Utah. Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

By Peter Jasinski

pjasinski@sentinel andenterprise.com

LEOMINSTER -- Sara Colangelo was already home in Los Angeles when she found out she won.

It was January and her newest film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” had just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, but she left early because she was worried the cold winter air would make her infant son sick.

“It was really surprising. I didn’t think I’d win,” she said. “We had left and gone to L.A. and then I got the call that I’d won the award and I couldn’t believe it.”

Colangelo was named winner of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Directing Award, making her one of only a handful of women to ever receive the honor and the first Leominster native to do so.

“Since winning the award, a lot of really wonderful projects have been pitched to me,” she said. “I think a lot of doors have been opened for me professionally. It’s been really great.”

Winning means that a graduate of Fitchburg’s Applewild School could someday direct a blockbuster coming to a multiplex near you, but as Colangelo explained, filmmaking had not always been the plan for her.

She graduated from Brown University with a degree in history and a “blank slate feeling” that resulted in her taking a job as a paralegal in New York City, however she soon learned she was more interested in the stories behind the crimes people committed than the actual legal aspects of the job.

“Why some people take risks when they have a family and so much already was really interesting. I would say sadly interesting,” she said. “It went to show me I was interested in human psychology and the inner working of what makes rational, decent people do bad things.”

It’s an interest clearly on display in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” which is set to premiere on Netflix on Friday.

The movie is Colangelo’s second feature-length film and follows Lisa, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher played by Academy Award-nominee Maggie Gyllenhall, whose interest in a student gifted with a talent for poetry gradually morphs into an obsession with the young boy.

It’s a remake of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name that Colangelo said she wanted to adapt in a way that would explore what value and attention art is given in the United States. Gyllenhall’s character is a poet herself, albeit an unsuccessful one.

“It’s very much about authorship and genius and mediocrity,” said Colangelo. “It’s a story about a woman trying to reclaim her voice, but in a very twisted way.”

She described “The Kindergarten Teacher” as venturing into psychological thriller territory about half-way through its 97-minute run-time, a fact evident in the film’s trailers, but Colangelo holds back on the specific plot details.

“You can see this as a story of a woman being thwarted creatively and trying to find her voice and an outlet for her own poetry to a certain extent,” she said. “I think there was something inspiring in the story line for all of us because our team was very women-heavy. The producing team was all women.”

Colangelo said she hopes that fact shines through in the finished product of the film.

While her accomplishment in winning Sundance’s director’s prize -- an award that kickstarted the careers of future Oscar-nominees like Darren Aronfsky and Ava DuVernay -- is an impressive feat, it’s also a reminder of the disproportionate number of male directors compared to female directors now working in the industry.

Only about a quarter of the directors to win at Sundance in the last 23 years were women, and that’s a comparatively better rate than even higher-profile honors like the Academy Awards, which have seen only five female nominees and one winner in its 90-year history, Kathryn Bigelow for 2010′s “The Hurt Locker.”

“It is all a bit surreal and this (award) is pretty great, but there is still so much work to do in getting female directors these bigger budget movies,” said Colangelo. “But Sundance, I think, is a place where they are really intent on supporting women and giving them the voices to tell these stories.”

It had been the Sundance Institute that initially contacted Colangelo based on the strength of her early short films to see if she was interested in working on a full-length movie, which led to her joining the institute’s writers lab and writing the screenplay of her first film, “Little Accidents.”

Now, with the success of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Colengelo is poised to make even bigger steps in her career.

Larger-scale projects are being suggested to her. Without giving too much away, she said her next project is a film “with some really great actors,” though she also has interest in possibly developing a series for TV.

“I’m really excited to take on slightly bigger budget movies, to move into bigger realms and vaster landscapes both character-wise and in terms of the world. And there’s so much great content in TV, I think I’d like to get into that in terms of a showrunner or a creator,” she said. “There are moments now when I have to pinch myself and ask how I got here.”

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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