Substitute Teacher Henry Barthes may have finally met his greatest teaching challenge ever. Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a serial substitute teacher. He lives in a modest apartment somewhere in the outer boroughs of New York City, and does not appear to have any aspirations for his future. He makes a living by assigning himself to temporary teaching positions that do not require too much commitment. When he lands a temporary teaching gig for three weeks at a public high school, Henry's life is intertwined in the life of three other characters.
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The principal (Marcia Gay Harden) hires him as a substitute, and on his first day he must show the class who is the boss. The students naturally resist his authority, and Henry, to exert his authority, kicks out a highly disruptive student. Other students push his boundaries, too, but he is patient with them. Remarkably, he is able to get the class to write an in-class essay. After class, a quiet student, Meredith (Betty Kaye), asks Henry why he threw out the one student, and not the rest. He responds that he needed to set an example.
When not teaching, Henry visits his dying grandfather. We learn that as a child, Henry's mother committed suicide. On the bus late at night, he meets a young street hustler, Erica (Sami Gayle). She offers her services, but Henry resists. After several encounters with her, he eventually invites her to stay with him in his apartment. At school, Henry begins a friendship with another beleaguered teacher (Christina Hendricks).
The struggles of the other teachers are also depicted. A guidance counselor (Lucy Liu) grows weary of trying to help her at-risk charges, and one teacher is shown at home grading papers, amidst his cold, uncaring family.
When Meredith takes a shine to Henry, she is eager to share her love of photography with him, and seeks his approval. After class, there is a moment where Meredith hugs Henry, and another teacher sees it. She accuses Henry of taking advantage of the student.
The principal is forced to resign her position, and we see her face this reality one morning after she gives the morning announcements.
Meredith's father constantly derides her about her weight. She records herself on video: "They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem... My name is Meredith and I'm going to kill myself." Meredith kills herself by eating poisoned cupcake she makes for a school function.
The movie ends with Henry Barthes finishing his three week teaching stint, preparing the students for his departure.
Best part of story, including ending:
I thought even though the education system in the United States is flawed, this movie treats the classroom as a place where there is no hope. I didn't agree with this assessment (even though it makes for a great existential angsty plot).
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene of Henry and Erica, having dinner together. It is remarkable that Henry was able to turn the life of this fifteen year girl around, from dirty street hustler, to a more confident person. I liked how Erica wants to please Henry, and the tensions that are built around their relationship.
Opinion about the main character:
I thought Henry Barthes was an archetype for the savior/flawed character we see often in movies.