DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Substitute 4: Failure Is Not an Option; The Substitute (TV film)


Title:  The Substitute:  Failure Is Not an Option

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 91 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Artisan Entertainment

Director; Writer: Robert Radler


Cast:   Treat Williams, Patrick Kilpatrick, Grayson Fricke

Technical: regular

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: screenwriting samples

Aka “Substitute 4”


“The Substitute” is a pseudo-franchise of up to 4 films where persons are hired as long-term substitute teachers to infiltrate and investigate serious crime or conspiracy problems within schools. Treat Williams (Andy Brown in Everwood) is the sub in some of the films, including this one.


Now, I’ve worked as an unlicensed sub, and written quite a bit about the experience on this domain, and created some controversy with one of my own scripts. Yes, one can go to work as an interim, hourly worker and look at what is going on in any job. Professional journalists who do this have gotten their employers in trouble, as with an expose of Food Lion back in the 1990s.


This film is the last of the series, and Karl Thomasson (Treat Williams), a mercenary or black ops guy in South America, goes to work as a history teacher in a military academy. He wears an Army dress greens uniform, and administers corporal punishment, which in real life he couldn’t do. But this is all set in motion when a student tells his dad that the place is a front for a right wing “Aryan nation” plot to plant terrorist attacks around the country. Now, the idea that corporate interests could set in motion such a right wing plot to set up “reeducation” academies is pretty interesting, but would tend to sprawl out over more than 90 minutes. The plot here, however, tends to disintegrate into episodes, some of them involving the initiation of the kid Ted Yeager (Grayson Fricke), whose chest is branded with a swastika in one harrowing scene. Brack, the evil colonel, is played by Patrick Kirkpatrick.


The Substitute (1993, Paramount, dir. Martin Donovan, wr. Cynthia Verlaine, 86 min, sug R). This television film could be called "Sub 0" as the official theater franchise would start in 1996 with a sometimes teacher and military mercenary story directed by Robert Mandel (Artisan). However, this thriller actually deals more with education and teaching, although it piles one crime after another into the plot. Laura Ellington (Amanda Donohoe), an attractive young adult woman with a British accent, takes a long term sub job as a high school English teacher after regular teacher Mrs. Fisher (Sheila Patterson) has coronary bypass surgery. She has seniors and loves to teach Emily Dicksinson's poems, especially one that deals with the end of the world. The kids are rowdier than would most be senior classes, particularly egged on by toughie Ryan Westerberg (Marky Mark Wahlberg). But Josh Wyatt (Dalton James) seems a bit more mature and captivating. She gives him a ride and invites him to a motel--most inappropriate. She makes a move for his shirt and chest, and soon we know they slept together. Pretty soon she is dating Josh's father (Eugene Robert Glazer) and is jealous of Josh's regular girl friend Jenny (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Now in a prologue the film has set up her dark past. (It would have been more effective to delay this.) She used to be Gayle Richards, another teacher in Albany NY, and had killed both her husband and his mistress when she caught them in bed. She had taken on a fake identity. Now, the kids are getting suspicious, even though they like her much better as a teacher than Ms. Fisher. In a confrontation, she slashes Ryan's throat, and, to keep her job, kills Ms. Fisher by roasting her cat in the oven, causing another heart attack. By now, Josh is starting to investigate her on the Internet, which would not have been easy in 1993 when the film was made. (The film shows techniques rather advanced for the days of  the IBM PS/2, Windows 3.1, Usenet, Gopher, and Rumba).  He confesses to his girl friend and dad that he slept with her. Somewhere along in her his dad says that he is 18, although we don't know his birthdate relative to when he slept with her in the motel. He was scathed by the experience. There is a final, Vertigo-like confrontation on the roof of a house. Josh is pretty much the young male hero in this film, even though in one scene Laura claims that the school has a derogatory secret psychological profile on Josh (in the days of "No Child Left Behind" such a thing could exist for a special education student, of which Josh is not.  


All of this is pretty shocking behavior for a teacher, and the movie probably did not cause that much of a stir because it is pretty out of bounds for reality. A film that stays closer to real problems could be much more frightening.


I have my own screenplay project on some of these issues, and there is limited information at this link.


Related reviews: Student Seduction    short: Il Supplente


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