When their teacher dies, and her former class of kids struggle in their various different ways to cope with the loss, a replacement teacher in the form of Mr. Lazhar is brought in on quick notice. He tries to help the children deal with the death of their teacher while at the same time dealing with his own problems.
How many times have we’ve seen the movie about the new teacher coming in and trying to teach the school kids something beyond what’s on the curriculum? Too many times to count by now. But in this subtly effective little film, by writer/director Philippe Falardeau, that plot device is utilized in a way that feels strangely anew. A perfectly judged tone of the light and dark makes for a hugely satisfying drama.
Much of that works because of Mohamed Fellag as the eponymous teacher, who tries his best to help others while coping with (at first) unknown problems. On top of him being a nice man who just wants to teach and help the children, he has a mysterious past of his own. There are moments hinting that it might be something dubious or even criminal but what is revealed adds an intriguing, deeply sad layer of complexity to a character that was already likeable and watchable.
Fellag isn’t the only one who impresses here, with a handful of the children in the class (the ones concentrated on most), delivering shockingly good performances for actors of their age. Émilien Néron as Simon and Sophie Nélisse as Alice, who were the only two children to actually see the teacher dead in the classroom, are especially good (even more so when you consider it’s the first film role for both the young actors).
The primary classroom setting of the film is portrayed in a way that feels natural and believable and not as a place for grandiose speeches about life and death. Those issues are certainly dealt with but it’s pulled off in such an understated manner that it doesn’t feel preachy. Touching, well acted and with a moving sweetness to accompany the dark themes, Monsieur Lazhar is a more than worthwhile French-language drama that manages to be as compelling as it is emotionally satisfying.
Monsieur Lazhar is out in UK cinemas on May 4th.