Despite the title, this is a film lit with rage from firebrand director Tony Kaye, the man behind American History X. This time his target is the American public school system, casting Adrien Brody as a substitute teacher who won't linger too long in any one place to guard against emotional attachments.
Brody gives a masterclass in acting as Henry, appearing totally vacant (one of his students draws a portrait of him without a face) and yet there's a visible strain too, an almost Munchian vision of a man being stretched out of shape. Henry feels the pull of a troubled past and struggles to get by day-to-day, looking at a classroom of mostly disaffected, deluded kids.
One particularly obnoxious teen insists she doesn't need an education - she has a plan to get rich (and famous) on one of those TV talent shows. The ignorance is depressing, not least for the teachers, and Kaye shoves it in your face with extreme close-ups and spitting rants.
It's a gruelling watch, but the moral outrage feels justified and Kaye does offer a reminder that there are often one or two kids in an overcrowded class who might excel with the proper guidance. His daughter Betty Kaye plays one such girl, Meredith, the budding artist who draws Henry's portrait.
Other members of the faculty have different ways of coping with the pressure. James Caan raises a few morbid chuckles with bitter sarcasm while, as the school counsellor, Lucy Liu finally cracks and gives that Pop Idol wannabe a tongue-lashing. Marcia Gay Harden is the head, squeezed into a corner by local authorities, quietly resigned to the fact that she's on the way out.
Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays a seemingly more poised teacher who makes tentative moves towards Henry. The attraction is obviously mutual, but Henry doesn't welcome the attention with open arms and the chances of romance are further dimmed by accusations of inappropriate conduct when, finally, he does reach out to Meredith.
While faced with possible disciplinary action at work, Henry's decision to take a young prostitute (Sami Gayle) into his home ruffles remarkably few feathers. Gayle is a talent to watch - feisty as she is vulnerable - and there are echoes of Taxi Driver, but this part of the film never quite gels. The relationship feels like an easy shortcut to redemption.
There's also a hint of Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson with its emphasis on a troubled teacher, but that story had a clearer, less contrived feel. Kaye isn't really saying anything new here; it's merely the passion and the punch of his delivery that makes the film worthy of note and a performance by Brody that quietly commands your attention.