[Editor’s note: This is a re-post. This review was part of Bryan’s Oscar coverage, but the film just came out in limited release today.]
Monsieur Lazhar is one of those films that are so simple, if you’re not careful it will sneak up on you and knock you on your ass. This effortlessness conceals heaps of emotion. It’s not that the movie pulls the rug out from under you or deceives you, but rather gracefully brings you into its orbit. I did not find myself bowled over at the end, but I can certainly appreciate the refinement in the film’s endeavor.
The titular character is an Algerian refugee now living in Quebec. Lazhar is introduced inquiring about an open teaching position at the local middle school. We then follow him as he struggles to adapt to his new environment, while at the same time his students cope with more than just his strange teaching style. It is slowly revealed why Lazhar appears so aloof and why he fled Algeria. They aren’t treated as revelations, just more character information, and more depth.
The movie is a fine study in reserve. Writer/Director Philippe Falardeau doesn’t overstate the themes but he doesn’t bury them under inscrutable layers either. Grief can be devastating, and life lessons aren’t easily learned (harder still in the constrictions of a classroom). It could crumble under an umbrella of schmaltz, but the movie is good enough to side step the obvious clichés and sticks to being a simple delight.
There are two major reasons this film works so well: the lead performance from Fellag as Lazhar and the wonderful child actors. Fellag is charming and carries a certain dignity in his stance and in his step. He also brings a special sadness to the role; it doesn’t encourage pity but it still breaks your heart. And the children aren’t overly cute. They feel like real students and not archetypes. They supply some of the film’s best laughs and the highest drama. The two kids that really deliver are Alice (Sophie Nelisse) and Simon (Émilien Neron). Alice reminds me of a more sophisticated Anna Chlumsky, and Simon is like a miniature Mathieu Amalric, with his simmering yet impotent rage.
It might not seem like a lot, but there are more than a few memorable moments. Many topics such as immigration, language, abandonment, and bureaucracy are all touched upon. But at its core, this is a film about the unique bond between teachers and students. There have been many great films set inside a classroom, and while this one might not be a classic, it’s a good addition to genre.