Monsieur Lazhar | Film review
A classroom-set Canadian Oscar nominee mostly skirts homilies.
Far be it from us to question the inspirational value of standing on desks, but it’s going to take a lot more than carpe diem platitudes to reach the troubled Montreal grade-schoolers of Monsieur Lazhar. The poor kids are still grappling with the suicide of their beloved teacher, who hanged herself in the classroom during recess. Enter the title character (Fellag), an Algerian refugee who’s come to play substitute. Lazhar’s got his work cut out for him: Not only has he inherited a deeply troubled group of pupils, but he has to contend with parents and school administrators who’d prefer the boys and girls leave their grief at home. Still coping with his own tragic loss—one that’s closely linked to his appeal for Canadian citizenship—Lazhar proves uniquely suited to stand and deliver for these damaged youths.
Rightfully bested by A Separation for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, Monsieur Lazhar approaches potentially sentimental material with surprising restraint. The classroom scenes, bolstered by the chemistry between Fellag and a stellar ensemble of child actors, seem loosely modeled on the lesson plan of Laurent Cantet’s excellent The Class. Cultural differences again prove an educational obstacle, though here it’s the instructor disadvantaged by his Algerian heritage. Perhaps inevitably, the film loses its footing in the climax, which proves a little too Good Will Hunting–cathartic. When Lazhar pulls one character in for a hug, softly insisting “It’s not your fault,” you can almost hear Robin Williams picking up the phone to bid on remake rights.