The Substitute review – vehement inspiring-teacher thriller is all a bit Mr Chips

A poet in Buenos Aires takes up teaching at a tough school and tries to protect his students in Diego Lerman’s cliched, if well-acted, tale

For all that it’s tremendously shot and vehemently acted, this movie from Argentinian director Diego Lerman – about a substitute teacher – is weirdly unsatisfying in terms of the story it has to tell: contrived, cliched, with secondary characters sketched in and a perfunctory and somewhat truncated car-chase climax.

Lucio (Juan Minujín) is a divorced poet and critic in Buenos Aires who winds up having to take a substitute teaching job in a tough inner-city school teaching literature to glowering kids (one of whom, inevitably, is a supernaturally talented rapper). Lucio’s dad, nicknamed “The Chilean” and played by the veteran Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, is a local community worker and cafe owner with connections to the mayor. Lucio’s dad is also a fierce enemy of a local drug-dealing mobster called El Perro, who reportedly has political ambitions of his own, and the Chilean employs Dylan (Lucas Arrua), a likable, smart kid from Lucio’s class, in his kitchen.

But Dylan stupidly gets involved in dealing drugs from El Perro’s supply on school property; the cops march into the classroom to make arrests. El Perro is furious at this breach in the unwritten rule that school is out-of-bounds for drug dealing, furious at the damage to his own ambitions, furious that the mayor (and his buddy the Chilean) are gleefully seizing on this opportunity to embarrass him. So he and his gang now want to abduct and even kill the hapless Dylan, and Lucio nobly makes it his business to protect this clueless, terrified kid.

And so the inner-city-inspirational-teacher narrative basically carries on in time-honoured ways: the performances, particularly from Minujín, are perfectly fine, but the set-up between the gangster and the Chilean and the (off-camera) mayor feels very under-written and under-explained. As the caring teacher, Lucio is basically too good to be true, and he is even awarded the traditional Mr Chips classroom finale. He’s rather less interesting than, say, the creepy voyeuristic teacher in Lerman’s earlier film from 2010, The Invisible Eye. A rather tiring school day.

• The Substitute is released on 20 January in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Argentina 1985 review – rousingly-acted junta trial dramatisation
Ricardo Darin anchors this courtroom drama as the chief prosecutor bringing military leaders to justice for human rights abuse

Peter Bradshaw

03, Sep, 2022 @4:45 PM

Article image
Charcoal review – tremendous thriller has family looking after mafia interloper
A Brazilian family struggling with their ailing grandfather are offered an unusual way out in Carolina Markowicz’s darkly comic and suspenseful feature debut

Leslie Felperin

07, Mar, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
La Civil review – compelling cartel kidnap drama with a vérité edge
Teodora Miha imbues this harrowing tale of a mother’s search for justice with a documentarian’s gaze, in a solidly made descent into every parent’s worst nightmare

Cath Clarke

07, Mar, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
A Common Crime review – chilling ghost story with a social conscience
A career woman is haunted by a teenager she could have saved from death in this masterful political thriller from Argentina

Peter Bradshaw

06, Apr, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Holy Spider review – Iranian crime thriller takes real case and makes it implausible
Twenty years after a serial killer murdered 16 sex workers in Mashad, Ali Abbasi has made a fictionalised account of his capture and trial

Peter Bradshaw

18, Jan, 2023 @4:55 PM

Article image
Beasts Clawing at Straws review – jet-black comedy in arch Korean thriller
A long-suffering sauna worker finds a bag stuffed full of cash in a crime caper with perfectly pitched performances

Leslie Felperin

10, Aug, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Killer review – super-violent South Korean thriller with well-coiffed assassin
A retired mercenary must free a kidnapped teen in this lurid and drum-tight thriller

Leslie Felperin

21, Mar, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Solid Gold review – sluggish Polish crime thriller
A tough-nut ex-cop is lured back to her old job to help bring down a drug baron in this overlong and unengaging drama

Phil Hoad

05, Dec, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Raging Fire review – bad cop steals show from good in savage Hong Kong thriller
With adrenaline-pumping action, Nicholas Tse’s vengeful villain cuts an almost tragic figure

Phuong Le

08, Nov, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Plagi Breslau review – blood-spattered serial-killer thriller
Polish purveyor of graphic screen gore Patryk Vega unleashes another tide of visceral mayhem

Mike McCahill

29, Nov, 2018 @12:00 PM