Director: Tony Kaye
Starring: Adrian Brody, Sami Gayle, James Cann, Lucy Liu, Betty Kaye, Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston and Blythe Danner
Plot: Chronicling of three weeks in the lives of several high school teachers, administrators and students through the eyes of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Brody).
Review: Tony Kaye has had something of a troubled history when it has comes to his feature film projects with his astounding debut “American History X” suffering from considerable studio interference leading Kaye to disown the final cut, while failing to have his name removed from the film. With no copy of Kaye’s preferred cut in known existence it remains to be seen which was the stronger version. Meanwhile Kaye’s second feature “Black Water Transit” would also suffer from studio issues when the production company went bankrupt during filming, leaving it unfinished alongside projects by Taylor Hackford and David O Russell. Now finally after what seems like an eternity we finally get a new film from Kaye as he turns his attention to the decline of the education system in American high schools and the struggle facing substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Brody), who is still determined to reach out to the disillusioned and often unteachable students, while his fellow teachers try to cope in their own ways with the stresses of their daily routine. At the same time Henry is also attempting to save a teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle) from a life on the streets, as he tries to take what he teaches out of the classroom.
Opening with interview footage with whom I assume are real teachers, sharing their views on teaching, aswell as what drew them to the profession, while this is intercut with this real life black and white footage we have colour footage of Henry, speaking almost confession ally about his own situation. Still despite the odds being stacked against him, with students who couldn’t care less about their educational prospects, while his fellow staff have largely given up or switched to a diet of cynicism, dark humour or “Happy Pills” with many just about ready to crack from the pressure cooker the school has become and yet Henry refuses to quit. Meanwhile outside of his classes, his outside life provides even less shelter from the daily issues, as he constantly has to deal with neglectful care home staff supposedly looking after his senile grandfather, while he lives out of a minimalist apartment and still despite these additional stresses, he remains focused on trying to save these kids, who everyone else has seemingly turned their back on.
Now please don’t start thinking that this is another bad class turned around by one good teacher kind of movie, as Kaye expands the focus beyond the classroom and often the school itself to paint a grim picture of society as a whole rather than just the failings and shortcomings of the public school system, as we are shown scenes like a hauntingly empty parents night were teacher sit in empty classrooms waiting for parents who will never come, no doubt having seemingly left the schools to raise their delinquent children. Even the moments of supposed colour in this dark world such as Henrys attempts to reach out to an outcast student (played by Kaye’s own daughter Betty) or even his attempt to save Erica are ultimately set to be swallowed by the darkness as it soon becomes about seeing what will finally make Henry crack.
Showing real confidence in terms of storytelling Kaye, thinks nothing of cutting away to scenes of other teachers trying to deal with the situation which surrounds them, with James Cann’s manically grinning jester Mr Seaboldt, twisting the obsenity riddled words of a student or addressing another’s questionable sense of school attire providing several of the films standout moments, much like Lucy Liu’s guidance councillor who finally cracks when faced with a teen with a highly delusional sense of reality and causing her to berating the teen with a bleak prophesy of their future, as she scream uselessly at them
“You will NOT be a model! You will forever be on a carousel, competing with 80% of the country for a minimum wage job for the rest of your life!”
True at times it can seem like a cameo fest, especially with Kaye casting Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston and Blythe Danner, but I’m hardly complaining when their performances are often so suitably raw and believable.
Brody meanwhile is truly believable throughout, as he continues his recent chain of great performances, only making me wonder why he is still overlooked as an actor, with this film only adding further fuel to the argument, as he delivers monologues to his class in the hope that they will finally realise the importance of getting an education, while even the subtle way he handles an initial aggressive confrontation with one of his students to trashing his classroom after being accused of misconduct by a fellow teacher, it is really hard to find fault here, with the ones I could find such as him the subplot involving Erica coming off at times more than a little unlikely, being more in relation to the script rather than his performances.
While it might not paint the most rosy of pictures of the day to day life of teachers, it at least attempts to end on a positive note, with Henry reading the opening to “The House of Usher” as the camera moves surreally through an abandoned school, leaving the audience with the impression that there is still hope left for the situation. Still it remains a triumphant follow up to “American History X” and while perhaps slightly harder to watch, it hopefully marks the start of a new beginning for Kaye as a feature film director as this is bold and exciting film making at its best.