Balzac for sixth graders? Clearly there's a disconnect between the new teacher and the class he inherits midterm, following the terrible death of the children's beloved instructor.
But in Monsieur Lazhar, the beautifully observed French Canadian Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film, the learning goes both ways. The students, still grappling with grief and shock - their teacher was found hanging from a pipe in the classroom - aren't used to the tradition-bound, formal methods of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag). And Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant with his own tragedies to deal with - and to keep him awake at night - isn't accustomed to the casual, smart-alecky manner of these Montreal preteens.
Written and directed with economy and insight by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar isn't one of those inspirational teacher melodramas (see Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society), but rather a sad, reflective study of the possibilities, and the impossibilities, inherent in the teacher-student relationship. Falardeau lets his story unfold at an unhurried pace, and Fellag is wonderful as this solitary man who keeps his travails a secret - bearing a load of worry and loss.
And the two young actors who play his students, Alice and Simon, are terrific. It was Simon (Émilien Néron) who discovered the body of Madame Martine dangling in the classroom, and Alice (Sophie Nélisse) was the only other child to see the corpse. The shared trauma threatens their friendship, and Alice's oral report - the assignment was on the theme of violence - leaves the classroom hushed, haunted.
Monsieur Lazhar, not to be missed.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau. With Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, and Danielle Proulx. In French with subtitles. Distributed by Music Box Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.EndText