It isn’t backhanded praise to say Phillippe Falardeau’s greatest skill lies in his ability to direct child actors. His last film, 2008’s It’s Not Me, I Swear! (C’est Pas Moi, Je Le Jure!) cast young Antoine L’Écuyer as a 10-year-old whose initial precociousness curdles when his mother abandons him, revealing believable layers in his characterization of pre-adolescence in revolt. Falardeau’s latest, Monsieur Lazhar, similarly hinges on credible performances by a bunch of 10-year-olds, who are collectively devastated when their grade-six teacher hangs herself in the classroom.
At the center of this trauma are Émilien Néron, who discovers his teacher dangling above a bank of desks when he makes his scheduled morning milk delivery, and bright-eyed Sophie Nélisse, the only other student to bear direct witness to the incident. As the school struggles to cope, a kindly Algerian schoolteacher arrives, as if dispatched by the gods of dramaturgy, to take over the class. As the titular Bachir Lazhar, Mohamed Fellag brings an earnest, old-world pedagogical approach to a modern Montreal defined by, as Nélisse puts it, its “white, grey, and dog-pee yellow” color palette. Initially, Fellag attempts to nudge the children past their loss by diving headfirst into his home-cooked curriculum, including anguishing Balzac dictations that raise up a chorus of groans from the class.
But before long, the fissures in the schoolroom dynamic deepen, and Fellag’s warm smile and dogged insistence on the importance of conjugations can’t distract from the gathering sense of malaise hanging over the class. (The new coat of paint isn’t doing the trick either.) Monsieur Lazhar draws its dramatic and emotional power from its tendency to stymie easy solutions. The new instructor isn’t some angel sent to heal these kids. In fact, his hesitancy to approach the situation dovetails convincingly with his character’s own private traumas concerning his exile from Algeria and his apparent bachelorhood.
This isn’t some To Sir With Love or Dead Poets Society, a paean to the nobility of the teacher as underpaid hero. Rather, Falardeau has Fellag meet the children on their own level, and recognize them as miniature equals, not merely lazy young minds meant for molding. Monsieur Lazhar carefully develops the emotional maturity of its leads (children and adults alike), which makes the rare attempts at over-the-top explosiveness—as when Néron breaks down in class—knock the film off balance a bit. But even these outbursts aren’t enough to derail Lazhar’s careful, gentle plotting. More than a class full of convincing child actors and a genuinely affecting performance by Fellag, Falardeau offers a film as believably wrenching, and finally cathartic, as the grieving process itself.