The Substitute (El Suplente), which won the Silver Seashell for Best Supporting Performance at the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival, is a gripping drama that portrays, according to Argentinian director Diego Lerman, “the survival and the struggle of adolescents to enter a society that is extremely hostile to those who lack support and basic life conditions the most“.
Recently appointed substitute literature teacher Lucio (Juan Minujín) needs to work hard to find a way to connect with the minds – and the realities – of students at a tough Buenos Aires high school. He also has big shoes to fill: those of his ailing father, known as “El Chileno” (Alfredo Castro), a well-loved community organiser who is about to open a soup kitchen years in the making. But “El Chileno” is constantly threatened by a local gang as they seek total control of the area through drugs and corrupt politics. When one of his students lands in trouble with the local kingpin, Lucio has to step out from his teaching duties to protect the teenager and the fragile bond he’s forging with his pupils.
With elements of high school dramas Blackboard Jungle, The Class and Dangerous Minds, The Substitute brings a fresh eye to the story of an idealist teacher getting to grips with challenging inner-city pupils, played by a teenage cast who, as Jonathan Romney in Screen International says, “contribute spiky, totally convincing energy”.
Diego Lerman won the Silver Leopard Award at the Locarno International Film Festival for Suddenly (Tan de repente) in 2002. He also directed A Sort of Family, which played at Toronto, won Best Screenplay at San Sebastian and was acquired by Netflix, as well as Refugiado and Invisible, which played at Cannes’ Director’s fortnight in 2014 and 2010, respectively. The Substitute, which had its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section, is his sixth feature.