A story of teachers and students that (partly thanks to the particulars of its Havana setting) employs parts of the classroom-inspirational formula without feeling anything like its by-the-book American predecessors, Ernesto Daranas‘s Behavior follows an all-but-orphaned boy and the elderly teacher who becomes his surrogate grandmother. Even without making a hard sell for its potentially melodramatic plotlines, the picture has an emotional effect: More than a few Oslo festgoers were heard sniffling throughout the second half. Cuba’s candidate for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar doesn’t quite have the stuff for a breakout art house success, but boutique distributors may find it worthwhile beyond the fest circuit.
Armando Valdes Friere makes his debut as Chala, a schoolboy living in poverty with a mother whose drug addiction makes her more burdensome than helpful. Raising pigeons on the roof and tending to the dogs a neighbor enters in fights, he earns the only money supporting the household, which is not to say he’s particularly mature: At school, only long-suffering teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez) stands between Chala and those seeking to send the misbehaving kid to a remedial “re-education” school.
When Carmela has a heart attack, leaving a more rule-bound rookie teacher to sub for her, things start to go badly for Chala and Yeni (Amaly Junco), the girl he has a crush on. Administrators who worry about their jobs try to sweep evidence of Carmela’s leniency under the rug, even if it means Yeni, one of her best students, must leave school because of paperwork inconsistencies. Though Carmela will soon be ready to get back in front of the chalkboard, she may be forced into retirement.
Daranas’ screenplay is sufficiently focused on the daily hassles of life in Cuba that uncertainties over the characters’ fates rarely loom large enough to feel like plot devices; similarly, none of the performances seems calculated to draw our sympathy away from other characters. Though Friere projects a winning pre-teen swagger in his persistent attempts to get Yeni to at least tolerate him — who could blame him for loving a girl whose hair, even indoors, seems always to be rippling in a breeze? — he’s never the kind of adorable juvenile who steals a film from adult co-stars. And though we hear repeated accolades for Carmela’s gifts as an educator (many of those now determining her fate were once her pupils), Daranas doesn’t manipulate us with classroom heroics.
Enjoyably brisk at the outset, Pedro Suarez‘s editing stumbles occasionally later in the film: Some castmembers’ performances would look considerably better with just one or two adjustments to reaction shots; and administrative wrangling over Carmela’s job goes on long enough that it threatens to throw the film’s balance off. If it’s uneven, though, the film benefits from its restrained portrayal of the tenderness between Chala and Carmela, who care for each other when family members who should cannot. Students may need the kind of brilliant young idealists we meet in films like Dead Poets Society. But schools would fall apart without long-haul pros like Carmela, who count each semester a good one if they kept just a kid or two from being discarded by the system.
Production companies: RTV Comercial, ICAIC
Cast: Armando Valdes Freire, Alina Rodriguez, Amaly Junco, Silvia Aguila, Yuliet Cruz
Director-Screenwriter: Ernesto Daranas
Producers: Isabel Prendes, Joel Ortega, Adriana Moya
Director of photography: Alejandro Perez
Production Designer: Erick Grass
Editor: Pedro Suarez
Music: Juan Antonio Leyva, Magda Rosa Galban
Sales: Latido Films
No rating, 107 minutes