Director Tony Kaye (“American History X”) creates a unique and stylized portrait of the American education system seen through the eyes of substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody). Henry wanders in and out of students’ lives, imparting knowledge where he can in the short time he has with them. Then a new assignment places him at a failing public school run by Principal Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) and alters his insular world. Henry’s stoic front is slowly chipped away by three women who impact his view on life: a student (newcomer Betty Kaye), a fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks), and a teenage runaway (Sami Gayle).
Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect. He assembles an astounding ensemble cast that includes Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, James Caan, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, and Bryan Cranston, but it is Brody who carries the film on his able shoulders. He magnificently captures Henry’s complex psychology, using great nuance and intimacy to express the feeling of living in a world of people who either choose to ignore or are just ignored themselves. –David Kwok [Synopsis courtesy of The Tribeca Film Festival]