Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Monsieur Lazhar

School of Hard Knocks

The Class of Monsieur Lazhar

Can the motivational teacher film be considered a genre unto its own? There's been many examples of it over the years, from Sister Act to The Class. Some have played it for laughs, like School of Rock. Many have played up the sentimentality, like Dead Poets Society. A few have dared to subvert it, such as the grim Half Nelson. Few, if any, however are quite as effective as Monsieur Lazhar.

The film begins with a suicide. A teacher in a Montreal school hangs herself in a classroom while her lieges are out in the yard. The body is discovered by students Simon (Émilen Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse) before any of the other staff members notice. A psychologist is hired to help the kids deal with the trauma while a replacement is found. It doesn't take long. Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), who instantly impresses the principal Ms. Vailiancourt (Danielle Proulx) when he shows up at the school to ask for the job. Lazhar takes over the class, but we slowly learn that he himself is dealing with some deep-rooted trauma. Can he help the youngsters while dealing with his own personal issues?

Monsieur Lazhar shares the initial setup and overall story arc of many similar 'teacher' films, but is altogether a more thematically and emotionally complex piece of work. By having the adults wrestling with their demons as well as the children, it creates a fascinating dynamic as actors young and old play off each other. Writer / director Philippe Falardeau, adapting a one-character play, keeps us engaged through these fascinating interactions, as well as carefully paced revelations and the frequent moment of great emotional intensity. It's a film about the effect of death & trauma on others, but also about how people navigate that confusion, shock and guilt. Quietly uplifting but never overwrought, the dramatic payoffs of the film are hard-earned by the stellar work of everyone involved.

Lazhar himself is a fascinating creation: a likeable but troubled individual trying to negotiate his way through life in his new home of snowy Quebec. It would be unfair to ruin some of his motivations and backstory, so I won't. Suffice to say, he's a character with a lot of depth, and one whose own story makes him the a fascinating addition to the school staff. He's not sure how to deal with the advances of a charming female colleague, and definitely on a different page to his few male workmates. His English is worse than the childrens'. As a teacher he's a stern, slightly old-fashioned traditionalist, but one who genuinely wants the best for his class. It's that minor contradiction that creates one of the grander thematic focuses of the film.

Where other cinematic educators have swooped in and single-handedly motivated their entire class to yell 'Captain! My Captain!', Lazhar is constantly restricted in his ability to inspire his class. The strict rules of the school board ensure he's forced to remain an educator rather than a friend, while many of the parents harshly reject his innocent attempts to 'better' their children. As a teacher, he's also good-intentioned but misguided in some of his curriculum interpretations: Balzac is certainly well beyond the capability of these 11 year-olds. Everytime he attempts to address the suicide of the previous teacher with the kids in an honest way, he's harshly chastised by the principal. It's a sad but realistic look at the role of education in the upbringing of children. In that way, it intelligently subverts the rules of genre. In suggesting that, perhaps, there is only so much a teacher can do - or, indeed, should do - the film is pleasantly removed from the life-affirming moral simplicity of other, similarly-themed predecessors.

The performances are almost universally excellent. Fellag nails the contradictions of Lazhar. All of the characters act like real people would act, often get a few deserved laughs in the process (for a film dealing with often grim themes, the 'not-too-dark' tone is very well-considered). It's the kids that truly impress, though. Both Néron and Nélisse are utterly convincing as two very different children. Without their stellar work in crafting two youngsters attempting to deal with emotions well beyond their age bracket, the truly emotional scenes in the final act would more than certainly lose their force.

Watching the trailers for this film, I had feared this would be a slight, over-familiar film. It's anything but. The simplicity of delivery masks an honest, complex and emotionally engaging film. Monsieur Lazhar is surely one of the most effective portraits of an educator yet committed to screen: one that's as surprising as it is charming. 

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