The best teachers don’t simply share what’s in a textbook, they offer up their own experiences to their students and learn something from the kids in their class as they go over the material, discovering what each of them do and don’t know. Philippe Falardeau’s film Monsieur Lazhar is a story about an unusual teacher who guides his students through a difficult time, and it’s a wise and perceptive study not only of what one man learns during a challenging life journey, but of the fascinating, sometimes sticky relationship between a teacher and a room full of young people.
Monsieur Lazhar opens on a quietly shocking note, as a sixth-grade student returns to his classroom after recess to make a terrible discovery -- his teacher has committed suicide, with her lifeless body hanging from the heating ducts. The school’s principal, Mme Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), tries as best she can to cope with the situation, comforting children and their parents as they struggle with the emotional fallout of the teacher’s death, but there is one practical matter to deal with -- the students need a new teacher, and she can’t find one willing to take the job on such short notice, especially given the traumatic circumstances. Enter Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who stops by the school to drop off his resume to Vaillancourt and offer his services to the school. Lazhar says he had many years of experience as an educator in Algeria before relocating to Montreal and becoming a permanent resident, but what Vaillancourt doesn’t know (and the audience learns rather slowly) is that this story isn’t true. Lazhar used to run a restaurant in Algeria, and fled to Canada as a refugee after a controversial book written by his wife led to death threats against his family, threats that were made real and cost the lives of his wife and children. As Lazhar tries to build a new life, he wants to lose himself in teaching and help guide the kids in his class, but many are still dealing with their grief, particularly Alice (Sophie Nelisse), a clever girl who idolized her former teacher, and Simon (Emilien Neron), who has educational and behavioral problems and a slightly checkered history with the school’s staff. Amidst all this, Lazhar is caught in a legal battle regarding his status as a refugee and his right to stay in Montreal, while his colleagues seem determined to pair him up with a pretty, single teacher named Claire (Brigitte Poupart), although he’s still not over the death of his wife.
For the most part, Monsieur Lazhar is a simple story told in a straightforward manner, with little fuss and an admirable degree of realism, and this points to the movie’s strengths -- what could easily have been an overly sweet and sentimental story that aims for all the usual emotional targets gets a more subtle and low-key delivery, and that makes all the difference. In this movie, Lazhar is no educational miracle worker, and neither are the other men and women on the faculty. Instead, they’re just people who work hard and hope they can make a difference given an increasingly difficult set of circumstances. And outside of school, Lazhar is a guy trying to put his life back in order despite a situation that would cripple many people emotionally, and if he struggles, he does so with a quiet dignity that only breaks down when he knows no one will see. Fellag gives a strong, thoroughly credible performance as Lazhar, expressing the character’s myriad emotions with clear but gently modulated shades, and his interaction with his students (who, unlike those in the average Hollywood movie about kids, look and act like real children) bears the ring of truth, sometimes funny and sometimes contentious. Danielle Proulx is suitably compassionate and exasperated as the school’s principal, Brigitte Poupart is bright and charming as Claire (who clearly doesn’t mind being matched up with Lazhar despite his hesitance), and Jules Philip is witty as the school’s cynical gym teacher. Lastly, Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron work wonders in their roles as two of Lazhar’s students, honestly conveying a rich variety of emotions while still seeming natural and unaffected. Monsieur Lazhar is special not so much for what it says, but for the way it says it, and this is a picture that’s genuinely charming while delivering a potent emotional impact; Philippe Falardeau’s direction is a model of the notion that less is more, and this film is a treat well worth savoring.
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