Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Starring Mohamed Saïd Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart 12A cert, IFI/Screen, Dublin, 94 min
IN A SNOWY Montreal schoolyard, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) reminds her pal Simon (Émilien Néron) that it’s his turn to put out the milk for their fellow classmates. He drops the crate when he sees his teacher through the classroom door. She has killed herself.
Despite the best efforts of panicked teachers, Alice also witnesses the body hanging from the ceiling. Weeks later she tells Simon that she still dreams about it, but it’s plain, as the two kids increasingly turn on one another, that there’s more going on than a shared trauma.
Meanwhile, a new teacher arrives at the school. Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, turns up unannounced in the headmistress’ office. He’s read about the tragedy in the newspaper and should like to apply for the late educator’s old job.
Alice likes her new tutor almost immediately, though the rest of the kids aren’t nearly so keen. “We’re not in Saudi Arabia now,” sniffs one student, as Monsieur Lazhar administers a clip around the ear.
As other cooler, creative teachers put on plays about post-colonialism and recreate Native American dream dolls, the older Algerian gent insists on Balzac dictation and the importance of conjugations. “Ha,” observes a genuinely bemused colleague as she enters his reordered classroom, “Haven’t seen desks lined up straight in years”.
Lazhar’s old-school methodology inspires resentful mutterings against “womanocracy” among his precious few male colleagues. Others are intrigued by his ethnicity. But in his willingness to discuss Martine and death, he turns out to be far more open than hipper, younger staff members. We know, however, that far from the campus, Lazhar harbours some terrible secrets of his own.
From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dead Poets Society, School of Rock and The Class, there are a million movies wherein beleaguered educators attempt to make a meaningful connection with their young charges. Monsieur Lazhar transcends the subgenre with counter-clockwise logic. The teacher is no swaggering, underpaid underdog with mad skills in ballet or circus. Rather, Lazhar is a complex protagonist: admirable but not cuddly, sincere yet duplicitous.
This is not a documentary, but fans of Nicolas Philibert’s immaculate chronicle of the learning curve, To Be and to Have/Être et Avoir, are sure to appreciate the warm lessons of this award-winning Canadian film. Director Falardeau and a wonderful cast provide a master class in grammar and most everything else.