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.