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Substitute, The (2007)
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by Jay Seaver

"Ignore the R rating; this is a fun kid flick."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: That "The Substitute" is making the festival rounds rather than getting some sort of general release is kind of amusing. The film's cast and plot makes it obvious that its primary audience is pre-teen kids, but how many people have been to a film festival that packs the tweens in? And then there's the film itself, edited in a way that may give adults fits, and apparently catching an R rating in the U.S. so that it's kept away from its main audience. Is this a case of the Danes thinking kids can handle more than Americans do, or something even more bizarre?

The story is pretty straightforward - a silver globe from a planet that knows only war lands in a Scandinavian chicken farm, possessing the farmer's wife. They had been watching an TV interview of Jesper (Ulrich Thomsen), a writer whose latest book proclaims love as the most powerful force in the universe. Sadly, Jesper's wife has perished in an automobile accident, and son Carl (Jonas Wandschneider) is having a very difficult time getting over that. On the same day Carl's class gets a new student, it also gets a long-term substitute teacher - Ulla Harms (Parpika Steen), the farmer's wife. She's strange and often cruel, but will the parents believe their kids' assertions that she's some kind of monster or alien? Of course not!

That this movie is rated R in America is patently absurd (the MPAA supplies "language" as the reason, but I don't recall anything worse than a "hell" or two in the subtitles, although I did note that some Danish words sounded kind of like f-bombs once or twice); it's almost as though filmmaker Ole Bornedal's previous thrillers (including the Danish and American versions of Nightwatch) are being held against it. There is some action and maybe more tension the The Substitute than might be found in an American live-action kid's adventure film, but nothing to be worried about.

What may be disorienting is the way Bornedal puts the movie together. Two or three times, the story seems to jump over events that it might have benefitted from showing, dispensing entirely with explanations for how the story gets from point A to point B. My general inclination is to give strange editing the benefit of the doubt, especially when the complaint is coming from someone older that the target audience (just because your brain isn't trained for a technique doesn't make it invalid), but there are two or three separate times the movie seems to lurch ahead. I complain, but I was able to fill in the blanks well enough, and I don't see anything stopping a ten-year-old from doing so. That said, it's distracting - when I'm coming out talking with a fellow audience member about whether Bornedal left something out of the script, screwed up in the editing room, or is just blazing a trail in terms of cutting his pictures right down to the bone, then the film has disappointed in some way.

Weird pacing does not take away from the performers, who give it plenty of life. Paprika Steen is an absolute gas as Ulla - she's menacing and nasty and then suddenly very funny, able to charm the audience with disarmingly bizarre honesty and then shift to full-on supervillain mode at the drop of a hat, quickly changing her body language and facial expression. She owns the picture, but not at the expense of the kid heroes. Jonas Wandschneider is nicely melancholy as Carl, but even the minor members of the cast are pretty charming, from know-it-all Lotte (Mollie Maria Gilmartin) to bookish Phillip (Nikolaj Falkenberg-Klok) to everyone in between. Ulrich Thomsen and Sonja Richter are nice in the roles of the most trustworthy adults, and co-writer Henrik Prip has an amusing turn as unhelpful school counselor "Psycho Claus".

Bornedal may be new to the family adventure game, but he's pretty good at what he does. We buy his kids as kids; even when they're obviously made as types they seem genuine. He manages a lot of broad humor without it ever becoming insulting; there probably won't be many funnier moments on film this year than the parents loading their kids on a bus for a school trip to Paris. And, yes, he does think kids can handle genuine tension, making scenes genuinely suspenseful and not wimping out by playing the villain as obviously dumb (although Ulla does plenty that seems foolish in retrospect toward the end).

He could do with explaining things a little more, though. There's a lot of scenes where the mechanism isn't clear at all, and others that seem to be missing. They're probably not strictly necessary, but they certainly wouldn't have hurt.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=16438&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/07/08 15:42:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2008 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2008 series, click here.

User Comments

1/15/08 Jerry Miller If you're rating the latest Treat Williams Sub, it's terrific, one of the best in the serie 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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