The genre has yielded some strong films of course. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a classic. Dead Poets Society isn't bad, Mr. Holland's Opus is near great, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is arguably the greatest (and darkest) of them all. But the very mention of another "inspirational teacher" drama is enough to illicit rolled eyes and groans of "here we go again."
That is perhaps why some predicted that Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar would triumph over frontrunner (and eventual winner) A Separation for this past year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar sight unseen. After all, any film dealing with teachers must be the kind of easily digestible schmaltz that the Oscar foreign language committee usually falls all over themselves for, right?
|Abdelmalek (Seddik Benslimane) and Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) in MONSIEUR LAZHAR|
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
The suicide rocks the school, of course, but it affects her students most severely, and Lazhar finds his work cut out for him. In his attempts to reach the students, he begins to understand the true depths of their pain and the roots of his predecessor's depression. As he peels back the layers of their emotions, he exposes a raw nerve at the heart of the problem that has yet to heal, and even as his own past begins to catch up with him, he becomes the strong role model these students need to begin the slow but ultimately cathartic path to healing.
|Alice (Sophie Nélisse) in MONSIEUR LAZHAR|
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
The film hinges on the performances of the children, which can often spell trouble for films of this type. But they are universally remarkable, especially Émilien Néron as the troubled Simon, whose connection to his previous teacher ran deeper than anyone imagined, and Sophie Nélisse as the precocious Alice, who has a fine career ahead of her. Much like their performances, Falardeu handles their plight with maturity and sensitivity, walking a fine line between schmaltz and restraint. More often than not, he hits just the right note, gracefully balancing some very complicated emotional waters without overstatement or easy placation. Monsieur Lazhar cuts right to the heart of what a great teacher really is, not just preparing children to take tests but truly educating, helping them to grow both emotionally and academically. In that regard, it is a timely film indeed, a quietly moving paean to education that pulls no punches in its portrayal of childhood trauma and resilience in the face of darkness.
GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)
MONSIEUR LAZHAR | Directed by Philippe Falardeau | Stars Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, April 13, in select theaters.