A dedicated older teacher struggles to keep one tough slum lad from disappearing into the official channels earmarked for those kids with chronic bad “Behavior” in Ernesto Daranas’ drama. This Cuban Oscar submission feature is a bit too formulaic an inspirational tale to attract offshore arthouse sales, but its fest-circuit awards and crowdpleasing nature make it an appealing pickup for broadcasters and rental-format buyers on the lookout for family-friendly, Spanish-language content.
A strutting little macho man at age 11, Chala (Arnando Valdes Freire) has had reason to mature awfully fast: He’s the sole supporter of the Havana household he shares with his slovenly, volatile mother, Sonia (Yuliet Cruz), who appears to be unemployed. (It’s hinted that she may occasionally practice the world’s oldest profession.) In any case, she’s a frequently drunk and disorderly mess who confesses she hasn’t the faintest idea who his father is.
As a result, Chala holds things together as best he can, raising pigeons for sale and keeping hounds for illegal dogfighter Ignacio (Armando Miguel Gomez), who’s also Mom’s occasional squeeze and thus one of presumably many paternity candidates. The sole supportive element in Chala’s life is Carmela (Alina Rodriguez), a grade-school teacher soldiering on well past retirement age, steadfast in her commitment to hard-luck charges like him, in the hope that he’ll turn out better than former students Sonia and Ignacio.
With his crude mouth, trigger temper and a domestic situation on the radar of police and social workers, Chala is already dismissed by many as a delinquent. Only Carmela shows faith, opposing an oft-threatened move to enroll him in a stricter, boys-only “re-education camp.” But her own status is also in peril: Fellow school staff (notably a prissy new teacher played by Miriel Cejas) have begun to think she’s bent the rules one too many times for her favorites. When she suffers a heart attack, they see it as a charitable excuse to put her out to professional pasture — though that would undoubtedly be the worst thing for at-risk Chala.
Daranas and Ania Molina Alonso’s fairly obvious screenplay is conceived in an Afterschool Special mode of social-problem drama, its characters drawn in unnuanced terms. There’s never any doubt that wise, wonderful Carmela knows better than all the younger authority figures combined. The very modest critique of institutional rigidity her character represents (Carmela also gets flack for allowing a student to post a religious symbol in the classroom) would scarcely register in a film from most other countries — and who knows, it may well seem dated by Cuban cinema standards a couple of years from now.
But Daranas’ direction tamps down the script’s implicit moralizing and melodramatic elements by playing everything in an agreeably low-key, naturalistic tenor. (He even pulls off a borderline cringe-worthy junior romance between Chala and a good-girl classmate, played by Amaly Junco, with her own problems at home.) Performances follow suit, to pleasing effect; tech and design factors are pro if undistinguished.