Director Philippe Falardeau certainly sets his sights high, meeting a challenge head-on: directing kids. The success of Monsieur Lazhar, a pint-size To Sir, With Love, rests largely on the narrow shoulders of his adolescent cast, who are put through a painful emotional ringer.
The film opens on a snowy Thursday morning in a Montreal public school when it’s mop-topped Simon’s (Émilien Néron) turn to bring cartons of milk for his sixth grade class. He’s the first to approach the classroom and the first to see his teacher’s feet dangling above the ground, her body hanging from a noose tied to a ceiling pipe pipe (which the viewer doesn’t see). He runs to another teacher, who orders all of the students out to the playground, but one girl, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), darts towards the classroom and takes a peek.
Having read of the death in a newspaper, Bachir Lazhar, a genteel and dapper man in his fifties, walks into the principal’s office without an appointment and applies for the now open teaching position. In a tight spot, the brisk principal (Danielle Proulx) merely glances at his all-Algerian resume, and on availability alone, she gives him a try on the spot, but she warns him not to talk about the suicide with his pupils. The administrator has already hired one psychologist to counsel the entire class, which has to remain in the same room where the suicide occurred. The school’s packed to capacity. All the administration can do is to slap on a new coat of paint and hope the change of color suffices.
Monsieur Lazhar (played by the Algerian-born actor Fellag) is strictly old school. During a writing exercise, he reads out Balzac, complete with its outdated vocabulary, and he also doesn’t see what could be wrong with a head-slap to an unruly boy. If certain nuances of his students’ behavior escape Lazhar’s attention, as one parent suggests, it doesn’t go unnoticed by the filmmaker. The hand-held camera holds tight, catching flickers of the students’ sideward glances and whispers.
The suicide of the former teacher hovers like a ghost, especially for Simon and Alice. The abandonment and grief are felt, but are not overly expounded upon, which is probably the most effective tack for Falardeau—appealing to our tear ducts rather than psychoanalyzing. The script hints at, rather than hammers home, the parallels between Lazhar and his young charges, each getting over a loss. Far from a sagacious outsider, Lazhar has a blind spot. He perceives his students’ lingering feelings over their teacher’s death, and he’s the only adult in the school who hasn’t shunted the death aside. But he doesn’t have his own Monsieur Lazhar, patiently observing him. Rather, he closes down and remains tightlipped about the family he left behind and the refugee status he seeks.
The class scenes have a loose and spontaneous feel. The freeform give-and-take between the students and Lazhar mirrors Laurent Cantet’s vérité-ish The Class (2008), though because Lazhar’s kids are younger, they don’t have the baggage of the latter’s urban high-schoolers and are instead more trusting. Both French-language films are disarmingly simple, focusing mainly on the intimate bond between students and the one adult who knows them better than their parents.
However, it’s doubtful that the Montreal public educational system wouldn’t have a contingency plan for a teacher’s sudden departure (or that an applicant’s references wouldn’t be checked, as in the case of Mr. Lazhar). And of course, the film’s sentimental to boot. It would be strange if it wasn’t, given that the kids are at an age where they can barely conceal their emotions even if they tried, and where any slight is of consequence. Yet the cast smoothes over the plot’s rough edges, and the director restrains from showing all-out confrontations (save for one emotional classroom outburst, the one outpouring that feels like a forced confession.) Despite what occurs, humor is never far from the surface. It’s certainly the first time I’ve heard Rice Krispy squares described as “baklava, Quebec style.”
At one point, Lazhar, alone after school in his dark classroom, hears the music from a school party blaring in the background, and he begins to dance and really gets into it, a moment that could be cloying and sink many a film into forced cheeriness. But it’s a temporary reprieve for the buttoned-down Lazhar to let loose. The overall tone remains sensitive, imbued with melancholy.
This compact film has rightfully won a slew of festival awards and six Genie Awards (the Canadian Oscars), including one for best picture, and it has a strong emotional appeal for a wide range of ages. All should bring a tissue—or two.