Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar: To Sir with Love, in Quebec

They speak French in Quebec—and don’t you forget it. They speak French in Algeria too, but it is not precisely the same, as the title character soon finds out. Yet, the clash of cultures is relatively mild in Philippe Falardeau’s quietly engaging, Oscar nominated Monsieur Lazhar (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Young Simon sees something no elementary school child should witness. His supposedly popular homeroom teacher hung herself in the classroom. It must be the ultimate act of passive aggression, but the film has little time for her issues. Eager to quickly move on, the school director will hire the first plausible long term substitute teacher who will accept the position, but only one person applies: recently arrived Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar.

A man with a secret past, Lazhar would seem to be the perfect candidate to implement the principal’s strategies of denial and coasting out the term. Yet, he cannot help forming attachments to his still grieving students, particularly Simon, who has become increasingly disruptive in class. It seems the young boy had a thorny history with his late teacher, a fact Lazhar must deduce for himself.

Monsieur Lazhar is an absolute minefield of potentially melodramatic clichés, yet Falardeau’s adaptation of Evelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play nimbly scampers over them all. It also has host of multicultural issues layered on top of it, yet it consistently resists the siren call of didacticism. Instead, Falardeau presents an intimate drama that seems so fresh because of its honesty and simplicity. Lazhar tries to help his class without calling undue attention to himself—period. Yet, the story turns out to be so much richer and more complicated than that.

Algerian stage performer and comic Fellag (as he is simply billed) clearly understands the benefits of subtlety. His sensitive but reserved approach as Lazhar allows him to really lower the emotional boom with his climatic speech to his class. It is a performance that sneaks up on the audience, winning them over with its straight forward integrity. The child actors also do surprisingly assured work, especially the three primary student characters, played by Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, and Marie-Eve Beauregard.

In many ways, Lazhar the film and the character are the polar opposite of Tony Kaye’s Detachment, allowing for the possibility concerned teachers can make a difference in their students’ lives. There is no condescending message about the evils of bullying here or a stilted lecture on Canadian immigration policy. Instead, it is a delicately nuanced look at student-teacher relationships and other related forms of human connections. Highly recommended, Monsieur Lazhar opens this Friday (4/13) in New York, uptown at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and downtown at the Angelika.