A touching film about emotional healing in an elementary school — wait! Don’t click away from this page just yet. I know that description makes it sound like something dire starring Robin Williams 15 years ago, but the Oscar-nominated French-Canadian “Monsieur Lazhar” is something different. Delicate and unsentimental, it generates a quiet, cumulative force.
Mohamed Fellag plays the title character, Bachir Lazhar, a middle-aged Algerian seeking political refugee status in snowy Montreal, for devastating reasons. He lands a job teaching a classroom of 11- and 12-year-olds midway through the school year. Their original home-room teacher has done the unthinkable: hanged herself in her classroom, where she knew her students would find her.
Monsieur Lazhar takes on these students knowing of their tragedy. They don’t know his — nor, for that matter, do his colleagues. They include his humane but brisk principal (Danielle Proulx) and the sympathetic theater coach Claire (Brigitte Poupart), who may have more than collegial feelings for the Algerian newcomer. While Lazhar draws semi-close to the staff, he keeps a small distance and doesn’t share his troubles.
That’s because he believes the classroom should be a refuge from the heartaches and struggles of the world, for his pupils and himself. He struggles with the curriculum and the local French dialect, and tries to apply an unhip, old-school aesthetic. (Example: he dictates passages of Balzac to the kids, who balk.)
When he thwacks a boy in the back of the head for throwing a spitball, he quickly learns of the school board’s no-tolerance approach to physical contact between teacher and pupil. As a colleague puts it, “Today, you work with kids like with radioactive waste — hands off, or you’ll get burned.”
Lazhar is less concerned about touching the children’s physical selves than with finding a way to touch their minds and emotions, especially in dealing with the grief and dislocation caused by their former teacher’s suicide. But in his concern, he risks overstepping boundaries.
Though a handful of the students in his class are well drawn, two in particular come into focus: Simon (Émilien Néron), who discovered the teacher’s body, and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a wise young soul who shares her new teacher’s interest in reaching emotional honesty and closure.
Writer-director Philippe Falardeau guides us through familiar hallways and points us toward what we expect to be the usual school clichés. But he keeps surprising us with his restraint, sidestepping the predictable. In the end, “Monsieur Lazhar” is a moving story of dual recoveries, in which a healing embrace between student and teacher may not be academically appropriate, but it’s humanly imperative.
“Monsieur Lazhar.” With Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Danielle Proulx. Directed by Philippe Falardeau. In French with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 94 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.