For better or worse, the teacher/classroom genre is a Hollywood staple. From “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poets Society,” these films follow a pretty standard plot formula time and time again (and often reap considerable box office and Oscar nominations anyway). But this weekend, Quebecois import “Monsieur Lazhar” — fresh off an Oscar nomination — transcends the genre with a moving, realistic take on student-teacher relations.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau, the film follows Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant who is hired to replace a teacher at a Montreal elementary school who kills herself. Honest and sincere in a manner rare to its Hollywood counterparts, “Lazhar” is a powerful little film that effectively takes on a multitude of issues permeating today’s society.
In honor of “Lazhar,” Indiewire thought we’d offer 8 other recent teacher/student films that offer go beyond the genre’s Hollywood limitations.
Student and teacher aren’t exactly buddies in Alexander Payne’s 1999 often brilliant political satire “Election.” Set in a Nebraska high school, it follows frustrated civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and his quest to bring down secretly vindictive overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she attempts to run for student body president. A considerable breakthrough for both Payne and Witherspoon, it arguably set them each on less interesting mainstream paths. But an easy reminder of their respective brilliance is clear in “Election.” [Peter Knegt]
“Not One Less” (1999)
Before Zhang Yimou was directing the Olympic opening display, he was orchestrating high drama on a much smaller scale. The most beautiful of his 90’s films, “Not One Less,” is a minimalist morality tale with a teacher-student relationship unlike any other. When a rural school’s teacher must leave town, the only substitute they can find is 13-year-old Wei, who has scarcely more education than the pupils themselves. The school is facing a disheartening rise in dropouts, so Wei must promise that when the teacher returns, there will be not one student less. When one student must migrate to the city, Wei follows him to bring him home. Here we’ve got an unusual story: It’s hard to think of another film about the coming-of-age of a teacher rather than a student. [Austin Dale]
“The School of Rock” (2003)
Taking the teacher/classroom genre and injecting it with the combined genius of director Richard Linklater, writer Mike White and star Jack Black, “The School of Rock” is a surprisingly family friendly joy. It gives Black one of his very best roles in Dewey Finn, a washed up rock singer and guitarist who disguises himself as a substitute teacher at a fancy prep school. Finn puts together a band with his students in hopes of winning Battle of the Bands (so that Finn can pay his rent), and some charming chaos ensues. Oddly endearing and consistently hilarious, the film is definitely worth a rewatch nearly a decade after its debut. [Peter Knegt]
“Strangers With Candy” (2005)
In the gut-busting film adaptation of the hit TV series “Strangers with Candy,” comedian Amy Sedaris (sister to droll author David Sedaris) plays Jerri Blank, a heinous (albeit lovable) 46-year-old former high school dropout who is forced to re-enroll to get her life back on track, after getting released from a rough stint in prison. A self-described “junkie whore” with a nasty overbite and a thing for underage ladies, Blank doesn’t have the easiest time fitting in with the popular kids. Even her closeted teacher Chuck Noblet (co-writer Stephen Colbert) gives her a hard time. Folks familiar with motivational speaker Florence “Florrie” Fischer’s infamous public-service film “The Trip Back” — in which she recalls her days as a New York prostitute to a group of bewildered high-school students — will no doubt get the jokes. After all, it served as the basis for the creation of Blank. [Nigel M. Smith]
“Notes on a Scandal” (2006)
In “Notes on a Scandal,” Cate Blanchett manages quite the feat by making her lusty-for-minors high school teacher more sympathetic than the old grouch (Judie Dench) who uncovers her naughty and illegal ways. In this school-bound pot boiler, Dench plays Barbara Covett, a lonely, unmarried teacher in London who blackmails sexy, new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), after discovering that Sheba’s been having an ongoing affair with a student. With wacky morals and one hell of a chip on her shoulder, Covett is one teacher you don’t want to cross. Sucks for Sheba. Both Blanchett and Dench were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their feisty turns. [Nigel M. Smith]
“Half Nelson” (2006) and “The Class” (2008)
Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning portrait of a cultured teacher attempting to reign in a group of lower class Parisian students and Ryan Gosling’s seminal performance as a drug-addled public school instructor in “Half Nelson” both generate tremendous energy from the naturalistic ways they depict classroom turmoil. It’s an old-fashioned, cliché-oriented story: Good-natured, but openly flawed educator tries to get students to do good. But Cantet and “Half Nelson” directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck skillfully turn formula on its ear by using the classroom as a representative stage for society itself. [Eric Kohn]
“A Single Man” (2010)
Tom Ford’s directorial debut would be a joy to watch even if it was on mute. But what adds to that rich control of color and camera is a fascinating central character, originally conceived in Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name. George Falconer (Colin Firth), struggling with the loss of his partner, has laid the groundwork for ending his own life after living one last day. Although his final lecture to his class (on the perils of submitting to fear) is a valuable, memorable moment, George’s spontaneous relationship with one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), is one of the film’s masterful exercises in subtlety. Through non-physical means, they end up connecting in a way that evens out their hierarchy. Their interaction makes the film’s resolution all the more affecting. [Steve Greene]