A charming if familiar tale of teacher knows best, so much so that it almost charms itself out of existence.
Native Québécois Philippe Falardeau won “Best Canadian First Feature” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 for his debut feature La Moitié gauche du frigo (The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge). In his short career of four features, Falardeau’s most recent work was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards, losing to the unstoppable goliath of A Separation, an Iranian film that challenged its nation’s institutions. Yet the pair of films, along with Israeli nominee Footnote, share a great deal in common, exploring the importance that we place on bureaucratic process and organisations, perhaps at the cost of those they are meant to benefit. With Monsieur Lazhar, Falardeau uses the familiar environs of a primary school.
Following the suicide of a much loved teacher, who hanged herself in her own empty classroom, a class of fourth graders struggles to come to terms with the tragedy. Bashir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), an Algerian refugee, is quickly hired to replace her, but he too is battling with his own demons. Despite his cultural differences, and a grief that nobody at the school is willing to talk about, Bashir begins to reach the class with his idiosyncratic style of teaching. In particular, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) earnestly tries to please to overcome her sadness, and Simon (Émilien Néron) – who discovered the body – continues aggressively acting out.
Comparisons might readily be made with Dead Poet’s Society, in that a teacher breezes in and out of these children’s lives and leaves them forever changed. However, an easier fit might be Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008), which examined a racially mixed classroom of teenagers preparing to face a system that stared back at them blankly. Both films use the classroom as a platform for discussing much broader issues than their small lives could possibly burden, and both feature well-meaning teachers faced with a system, and a group of kids, who have largely lost the ability to emotionally confront reality. Monsieur Lazhar is quite pointedly stating that complicated rules around the way children and curriculums are handled are distancing the classroom from core values, although this fails to materialise into anything more concrete.
Mohamed Saïd Fellag delivers a solid performance, balancing his own dark past against the weight of nurturing young lives, but the signposts are too obvious to truly feel anything but a sense of inevitability about his character. Appropriately, the real stars are the children, particularly the Genie Award winning Sophie Nélisse in a debut performance that never betrays her inexperience. Like co-star Émilien Néron, it is difficult to remember that these are only actors at the start of their journey. The film gives them a path to follow for the rest of the way, but never fully commits to stepping through it personally.
Monsieur Lazhar is playing in competition at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012, and again at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2012. It is released in Australia on 6 September 2012 from Palace Films.