[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
A teacher dies tragically, leaving her eleven- and twelve-year-old students variously bereft, disoriented, and determined not to react. Days later, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) — an émigré from Algeria with years of teaching experience who's trying to put a calamity of his own behind him — presents himself as a replacement. His classroom style is different from what the kids have gotten used to; he prefers orderly rows of desks to the "team-building" semi-circle, and the school's administrator (Danielle Proulx) has to tell him that he can't just casually whap a misbehaving boy upside the head.
Monsieur Lazhar points out gaps and failures like this throughout: the casually classist comments of parents who both expect the school to act in loco parentis and resent its attempts to do so; the compulsory English lessons when the kids can't conjugate in French yet (the film is from Quebec); the emphasis on fun, color, and camaraderie in the classroom when rules prohibit teachers from physically touching students in any way. The script doesn't lecture us on the topics, though, or get all Dead Poets Society about good vs. evil, or end in the victory (or ingenious compromise) you might expect from the subject matter. Whether it's observing the educational system, Lazhar's friendship with a fellow teacher, or the bond he forms with one of his students, the precocious and direct Alice (Sophie Nelisse), the story acknowledges that solutions don't always exist. We all just bumble forward as best we can manage, finding a way to live without information we think we need. (Speaking of which, if this is all seeming rather vague, I apologize. The plot isn't exactly spoilable, but the details will function better if you discover them for yourself.)
I liked that about the film, that it understood this and that it let the audience figure it out. It stuck with me, the ending that leaves things unsaid, the courtly reserve of Lazhar that wavers but doesn't break, the connections made or sought. The acting is uniformly good and natural; Emilien Neron as Simon is overmatched in a couple of scenes, but he's asked to play a reveal that may not fit in the first place, and on the whole, the kids (and Proulx) seem like they could be in a documentary.
I don't think Monsieur Lazhar wins its category, but it's a good movie. It trusts you.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.