French-Canadian classroom drama teaches a lesson on healing
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie NĂ©lisse, ĂĂ˘milien NĂ©ron
Inspirational teacher stories have long been a staple of the movie industry—from 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips to 1967’s To Sir, With Love to 1988’s Stand and Deliver to 1995’s Dangerous Minds. But few of these live-and-learn dramas have had the quiet, unadorned impact of Canada’s Academy Award nominee Monsieur Lazhar.
This gentle, compassionate and deceptively simple film takes place in a public middle school in Montreal. Most teacher-based dramas choose to set themselves in high school classrooms—probably because it’s easier for filmmakers to work with older actors. Plus, teen pregnancy = easy drama. Also, few screenwriters seem to have much of an understanding of actual young people. Drop in a few popular slang phrases and some boilerplate rebellious attitude and—bang—you’re writing for teenagers. But creating realistic 11- and 12-year-olds requires a much more delicate touch. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau (It’s Not Me, I Swear!; Congorama) is nothing if not delicate.
The children in this classroom (a magnificent, stereotype-free collection of first-time actors) are reeling from a sudden tragedy. Their teacher has committed suicide. In the classroom, in fact. Her body was discovered by class clown Simon (Émilien Néron) and sixth-grade brainiac Alice (Sophie Nélisse). While the entire class is dealing with the tragedy in their own stumbling ways, Simon and Alice bear the heaviest wounds. The incident lends an angry edge to Simon’s usual wiseacre attitude and compounds Alice’s isolation (her mom, a commercial pilot, is forever somewhere else). Hoping to put the tragedy in the past as quickly as possible, the school simply paints the classroom walls a different color, pretends nothing happened and hires a substitute.
Our substitute comes in the form of polite, soft-spoken Bachir Lazhar (comic actor Mohamed Fellag). He’s a 55-year-old Algerian immigrant who fled his home country on political grounds, and he’s still trying to establish citizenship in Canada. None of this is any concern to the school’s by-the-book principal, who only wants a teacher willing to take on a class full of emotionally scarred tweens. Though his classroom skills are a bit archaic (he may have exaggerated his résumé a tad), Lazhar is actually the perfect man for the job.
See, Lazhar is nursing his own unspoken pain. He’s got more in common with these kids than anyone knows. And if his grammar-teaching abilities are rusty, his empathy is not. The problem is that he’s been introduced into a modern, politically correct public school. Teachers aren’t supposed to interact with their students in anything other than the most businesslike manner. Touching them, for example, is strictly forbidden. Granted, there are clear reasons for this. But it has birthed a generation of gym teachers who send kids running around the auditorium every day because actual “sport” might lead to physical contact. It’s also created a generation of students for whom a simple, comforting hug is an unwelcome, alien thing. The question becomes something of a brainteaser: How do you touch students without, you know, touching them.
Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t go for overworked melodrama or overly scripted resolution. Lazhar himself is no Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, magically inspiring troubled students with his unorthodox techniques. He’s just an ordinary guy who cares. And it’s not that his fellow teachers don’t care. It’s just that those feelings have been regulated out of them by the institutional nature of the public education system. Middle school is a pivotal time. The students are no longer little kids, but they’re not adults yet, either. They’re old enough to comprehend death but not quite mature enough to wrap their minds around it. Funny thing is, adults don’t really know how to address the topic themselves. Only Lazhar, the odd duck outsider, is close enough to the issue to address it head on—by doing radical things like actually talking to his students.
Monsieur Lazhar is a bit like an omelet: It’s a simple recipe composed of the most basic ingredients. There’s little fuss or flourish to anything here. Done with care and skill, though, there’s something honest, refreshing and bracingly essential about the end result. The children are treated respectfully and realistically as resilient creatures who nonetheless occasionally crave the reassurance of strong parents and wise authority figures. Lazhar, embodied with sympathy and humor by Fellag, is equally real—a compassionate guy struggling to deal with a difficult situation while fighting his own emotional, behind-the-scenes battle. The film tackles potentially thorny issues of violence, justice, fairness, loss and healing by doing something rather unconventional—telling the truth. It’s a lesson we would all do well to heed, regardless of age.