Substitute kicks off with a somewhat contrived storyline: schoolteacher Max is struggling ineptly with his multi-racial class, who’d rather fiddle with their mobile phones than listen to his lesson. He calls in his own former teacher Folke, now aged 73, to see if the old methods of education work any better. At first it’s hard to care very much – stroppy teenagers, inexperienced teacher, authoritarian old hand, the cast feels too familiar.
The scenario’s reminiscent of a UK reality-TV set-up; with lower production values. However the wobbly camera eventually drifts into more engaging territory. Max’s excruciatingly embarrassing attempts to get down with the kids, and Folke’s technique of charming them by speaking Swedish backwards, made me warm to the characters. As a few of their pupils come into focus, the film turns into a study of the dilemmas faced by young refugees and immigrants, through the eyes of their teachers.
Après Ètre et Avoir it’s a tough call to make an observational doc about the year in the life of a school. Substitute is no substitute, but by the time the final schoolbell rings, even the chatty ones at the back of the class might have been drawn into the story.