Teachers can inspire, but we already know that. At some point in our lives, we had at least one teacher who truly enriched our lives by helping us grow as human beings rather than just making sure we made it to the next grade level. But in movies, teachers can only be inspirational if they can somehow “reach the unreachable”. The great teachers are the ones who go to the bad neighborhoods, keep the kids out of gangs, and put on leather jackets to show they can relate to life on the streets. Monsieur Lazhar eschews this superhero-teacher in favor of one who has a class of kids who are ready to learn, but have also had a brutal lesson on death and betrayal far too soon. By turning attention away from big dramatic speeches in favor of strong, quiet performances and non-saccharine sentiment, Monsieur Lazhar isn’t just a nice movie about inspirational teachers, but a nice movie all around.
On his way to deliver milk to his classroom, 11-year-old Simon (Émilien Néron) peers through the door and finds that his teacher Martine has hung herself. While the other teachers try to shield all the other kids away from the classroom, Simon’s friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse) fights through the crowd and also sees their beloved teacher’s body hanging from the ceiling. Simon, Alice, and their classmates are not only traumatized by the event, but they’re not even sure how to express their emotions. After reading about the story in the paper, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) offers to teach the class until a replacement can be found. Having suffered a recent loss of his own, Monsieur Lazhar and the class help each other through their grief.
Director Philippe Falardeau always makes the smart decision by going small until he absolutely needs a character to have a big, emotional catharsis. The discovery of Martine’s body is shocking enough on its own and there’s no need to embellish the drama of the situation. Falardeau decides to trust his cast, especially his young actors, to carry a heavy emotional heft. They have the crucial task of transporting the audience back to their time in grade school and think about how they would deal with a beloved teacher’s death, and the young cast does tremendous job, especially Néron and Nélisse.
Fellag’s is the one who must bring us back to the adult world and show that while Lazhar and his students may be dealing with their grief and can rely each other, he can’t use them as a way to vent his pain. The movie keeps us on Lazhar’s side because he’s not taking advantage of the students by overtly revealing his circumstances or using the classroom as therapist’s office. The students and their teacher are filling a hole in each other’s lives, but no one explicitly expresses the nature of the relationship, which keeps the movie smart and the characters honest.
Even though it deals with heavy issues of loss, grief, and healing, the film knows it doesn’t need to glamorize the power of teaching and learning. On the contrary, Monsieur Lazhar embraces the unglamorous side of teaching: overseeing the kids as they play on the playground, making sure they come inside single-file, grading papers, and so forth. Moments like these all lend to the authenticity of the school environment, and we’re drawn deeper into a world where we can recall the difficulty of things that seem simple and obvious now.
Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t reinvent the “Inspirational Teacher” genre or push it to challenging, blazingly original places. It’s not even a rah-rah booster for teachers. If anything, it’s a reminder of a teacher’s responsibility to not only make their kids better people, but to never betray their trust. Suicide is a selfish act, but Martine’s suicide is both selfish and cruel. The film rushes a little too fast in getting the kids to openly accept their new teacher, and he takes to teaching them with hardly any difficulty. But these narrative shortcuts are acceptable when the story manages to be heartwarming, uplifting, and thoughtful about its subtext without ever being mawkish, maudlin, or patronizing. Monsieur Lazhar is not only a well-made, well-told story, but it will make you want to find the teacher who made your life better and tell them, “Thank you.”
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: