|release date||October 14 2008|
|studio||Lionsgate/Ghost House Underground|
|starring||Sofie Gråbøl, Paprika Steen, Ulrich Thomsen, Sonja Richter, Jonas Wandschneider|
|trailer 1||Trailer #1|
I know what you’re thinking. It’s been a decade since Tom Berenger made that awful late-night cable staple above. Why are you talking about it now? Well my friends, this is a whole different Substitute that I’m talking about. Sure the base concept is the same: Replacement teacher comes in and kicks a little ass. Only this time, it’s not street gangs the teacher is after…its 6th graders. And, she isn’t a mercenary with anger management issues…she’s a space alien looking for love!
It’s funny that I saw THE SUBSTITUTE for the very first time just a few nights ago. This 2007 Dutch production from Director Ole Bornedal (NIGHTWATCH) has been on the festival circuit for a while now. What makes the film interesting is that it comes on the heels of my recent coverage of Director Paco Plaza’s film A CHRISTMAS TALE from the 6 FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE set. Both films share a similar ambiance. Both, seem to be made for a viewing audience of newly-minted teenagers. Now, to be fair, Plaza’s film is specifically designed as a nostalgia piece about teenagers but aimed at the 25 to 35-year old demographic that grew out of those misspent days of 1980’s youth. Bornedal’s film (which takes place today) feels more like a movie that was made in the 1980’s for kids at that time. Did I just confuse you? Sorry. Remember CRITTERS and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE or GHOULIES? THE SUBSTITUTE feels like one of those films only made today.
The plot is simple. A group of 6th graders get a new teacher. She’s a taskmaster, telling the students they are not working hard enough to reach their potential. She promises them a mysterious trip to Paris for a kind of “best and brightest student contest”. In reality, the teacher is an alien who has left her warring home world in search of the greatest element in the known universe, human love and compassion. She believes that only this can save her planet. Sounds like a noble cause right? Well, let’s just say that Mrs. Ulla has a strange plan for harnessing a little love and affection.
It’s hard to say exactly where THE SUBSTITUTE misses the mark, but I’m certain that it has something to do with the fact that I’m no longer in middle school. I really feel like this film, despite the unnecessary R-rating (it’s there for language), is aimed at a demographic that I no longer represent. It’s like a Goosebumps feature film: “Strange Goings-On in the Schoolhouse” or, “My Teacher is from Outer Space”. I can see the magic in the film, but its execution is falling on deaf ears damaged by decades of horror films.
Despite the film’s lacking visceral resonance, or perhaps because of it, the best moments come from the human interaction: The kids relating and retaliating against a common foe. But the most enjoyable on a cat and mouse playing field come from the direct exchanges between the cold and calculating Ulla (Paprika Steen) and the young student Carl (Jonas Wandschneider) whom Ulla has a particular interest in, and the one kid that most suspects his teacher is not what she appears to be.
It’s not long before all the students get wind of Ulla’s maniacal plan, and wouldn’t you know it, the parents just don’t understand. I guess things haven’t changed that much in the 20-years since I was in middle school. I mean, technically these could be my kids. Of course, I’d believe my kids if they told me their teacher were from another planet! Sure I would!
Truthfully, the kids that make up the cast of THE SUBSTITUTE deserve a great deal of praise for pulling off an entertaining film. They know better than the adults and ultimately, they can take care of themselves better than the adults can. The film is empowering in the ways that so many great 80’s films, were empowering to kids. Matching THE SUBSITUTE up with something recent like SON OF RAMBOW or A CHRISTMAS TALE would be a great way to remind you of the much shorter and much more open-minded selves that so many of us have long since abandoned.
The fact that those 2 films I just mentioned and THE SUBSTITUTE are all foreign films also begs the question, when did American studios abandon making smart and edgy films for kids and relegate tween cinema to the realm of High School Musicals?
Where’s my GREMLINS? You can’t expect (and the MPAA surly doesn’t want) these kids lined up to see HOSTEL: Part 8. So, fill the void. In fact, go hire some Dutch and Spanish Directors if you can’t find any locals to do the job! But give us more than SPIDERMAN movies and HARRY POTTER installments. I promise one day, it’ll all pay off. Because kids grow up. And when they grow up, they remember what was great about their youth. Need proof? I’ll sum it up in 4 well-spoken words. “Goonies never say die”!