The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE SUBSTITUTE | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE SUBSTITUTE

New to Netflix - THE SUBSTITUTE
A substitute teacher tries to save a pupil from the clutches of a drug kingpin.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Diego Lerman

Starring: Juan Minujín, Bárbara Lennie, Alfredo Castro, Rita Cortese, María Merlino

The Substitute poster

The concept of a committed teacher attempting to improve the lives of pupils in a tough neighbourhood's high school is hardly new. If you've seen anything from The Blackboard Jungle to Dangerous Minds you'll know how this goes down. A new teacher arrives at school and finds themselves faced with the mammoth task of getting the kids interested in whatever subject they happen to teach (more often than not it's literature, which allows for sequences in which Teach compares Shakespeare to Snoop Dogg in an attempt to get down with the kids), and usually find themselves embroiled in some sort of local turf war.

Diego Lerman previously gave us another school drama in 2010's The Invisible Eye and now returns to the chalkboard jungles of Buenos Aires classrooms with The Substitute, a title already taken by a 1996 American variation on this theme starring Tom Berenger.

The Substitute review

Lerman ticks all the sub-genre's boxes: yes there's a determined teacher who finds himself on a saviour quest to rescue a pupil from the clutches of the local drug kingpin, and yes there's a scene where the joy of poetry is communicated to the kids through rap, but what marks The Substitute as something a little different is its lack of sensationalism.

Played by Juan Minujin, substitute literature teacher Lucio is as far from Robin Williams' inspiring poetry teacher as you could imagine. He's grown cynical about the lack of interest in his field among younger people, and arrives at a tough suburban Buenos Aires high school with few ambitions beyond getting through the days and hopefully helping at least some of his disinterested pupils to scrape a pass in their exams.

The Substitute review

Lucio's father (Alfredo Castro) however is very much the sort of figure Robin Williams might have played. Known locally as "The Chilean", he runs a centre that helps keep kids out of trouble by keeping them busy with various projects. One of the kids under his charge is Dilan (Lucas Arrua), a quietly intelligent boy who just happens to be one of Lucio's pupils. Dilan is also dealing drugs for El Perro, a local drug baron who has aspirations of becoming the neighbourhood's mayor. When Dilan breaks the dealer's code by selling his product in school, leading to the arrest of a fellow pupil, he finds himself hiding out from El Perro, who wishes to punish him severely for jeopardising his political ambitions. Needless to say, Lucio intervenes in an attempt to save the boy.

As dramatic as the set-up reads, Lerman downplays his film's various dramas. Unlike the sensationalist Hollywood movies it shares its general premise with, The Substitute is a gritty and realistic look at how this scenario might play out in real life. There's never any chance of the mild-mannered Lucio standing up to the drug gang, so we know we're not in for some ridiculous third act where he tools up and mows them down while shouting catchphrases like "Class is dismissed!" Instead we watch Lucio quietly wrestle with a situation that's far from black and white. In helping his students, Lucio finds himself exposed to a world that plays by different rules to his own middle class milieu. He also finds himself in the shadow of his father, as the locals compare him to his old man and expect him to deal with matters in the same direct fashion, something the shy Lucio just isn't built for.

The Substitute review

Along with the central narrative we get a sub-plot regarding Lucio's attempts to make his 12-year-old daughter take the entrance exams for a posh school she has no desire to attend. It's a nice touch on Lerman's part to expose what is either hypocrisy or simple pragmatism on Lucio's part in wanting his daughter to avoid sharing a school with the sort of deprived kids he himself is fighting to defend. Ironically, while Lucio gradually gets through to the kids in his class, he finds it a constant struggle to connect with his own child.

Lerman peppers his drama with nicely observed small details, like how Lucio almost puts his key in the front door of the house now occupied by his ex-wife, only to correct his mistake and knock instead. Other subplots, like Lucio's colleagues-with-benefits relationship with an older female teacher and the reveal that his ex-wife has taken a lesbian lover, are similarly downplayed and portrayed as commendably matter-of-fact. When things do take a highly dramatic turn in a climax that sees Lucio and Dilan fleeing from gun-wielding mobsters, Lerman proves himself as capable of creating a suspenseful action sequence as any of his Hollywood peers.

The Substitute
 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.

2023 movie reviews