Director/writer Philippe Falardeau has most certainly polished his narrative chops to the same already gleaming level of his cinematic skills. What few tugs at suspension of disbelief (no teachers available for full-time work in Montréal; it’s easy to pose as a landed immigrant) can be readily shrugged off once the themes of injustice and blame begin to burn brightly in this tale of tragically losing one’s own family only to become guardian extraordinaire of a grieving covey of 11- and 12-year-olds (along with the “retard” who is 13).
It’s a fascinating combination of the largely cherubic kids of The Choir, and the evil hellers so remarkably one-upped in Confessions with just a touch (thankfully: all we get here is a picture of a dead rodent) of deadly manipulation of elders in We’ve Got to Talk About Kevin (cross-references below).
The drama opens with milk-monitor-du-jour, Simon (readily believable except for the overdose of bullying the fat boy by Émilien Néron) finding his classes’ beloved teacher, Martine, hanging limply from her own blue scarf—inflicting the longest detention possible on herself in the sanctuary of learning.
No-nonsense Principal Vaillancourt (done up with appropriate political savvy and stoicism as required by Danielle Proulx) quickly gets the situation under control by hiring a psychologist (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde) to deal with the mental trauma and a self-appointed replacement, one Bachir Lazhar.
Algerian Fellag plays the title role with an obvious love for young minds finding their place in the world and a range of emotion—working beautifully with Falardeau’s purposely understated tone—that is a pleasure in nearly every scene (only falling short during the romantic dinner with colleague Claire—Brigitte Poupart—where the dialogue gets as awkward as the situation). Reinforcing the children’s world is Martin Léon’s this-must-be-a-dream original score (effectively intertwined with “simple” classical piano works given an endearingly straightforward approach by Jean-Pascal Hamelin).
The subplot concerns Lazhar’s refugee status. His wife became persona non grata after publishing a book critical of the regime’s leniency on known thugs and murderers during Algeria’s own “Arab Spring.” Like the outcome of the suicide, the sticking point here is responsibility: Why would Lazhar abandon his family just when their collective danger was at its height? Why would Martine choose to off herself where her “family” would unforgettably discover their surrogate parent? Did the actions one of her flock cause this horrific end?
By working on the same subject matter from two different perspectives (and—for balance—having a lot of fun along the way: the school play is a gem), Falardeau reinforces both and leaves viewers with much food for thought as they recall some of their own taunts—received or given—over the years. Being entertained, learning a few new facts and fables combined with facing grim realities make taking a class from Monsieur Lazhar a lesson that shouldn’t be missed. JWR