The movie genre in which an underdog teacher wins over a classroom of reluctant, troubled students has a long history, but it's almost inevitably square. It usually leads to cheap uplift and Oscar-bait performances, and there's something problematic about its implicit themes. Films like To Sir, With Love rarely call for systemic change to public education, just "superhero" teachers who can motivate their charges to study and get their lives on the right track. Ask any working teacher if they can conquer the influences of crime and poverty outside the classroom.
But it's an irresistible genre nonetheless, and when it's done with care and conviction — as in Half Nelson (which subverted the formula by making its teacher a strung-out crackhead) or the fourth season of The Wire — it retains its ability to rekindle our faith in the difference a single committed teacher can make. The same is true of the Quebec-made Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Philippe Falardeau. It rarely diverges from the template, but it's a particularly modest, intelligent and moving film.
Monsieur Lazhar begins in a Montreal middle school one winter morning. As a group of 11-year-olds prepares to leave the playground, one of them notices that a teacher has hanged herself in a classroom. A few weeks later, 55-year-old Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) applies for the job and talks his way into it. He introduces himself to the sixth-grade class, and while his manner is more formal than they're used to, he gets along with them. But his immigration status is perilous, leaving his position at the school tenuous.
The trailer for Monsieur Lazhar makes it clear that the teacher has his secrets: He is a legal immigrant to Canada, but the exact reasons why he fled Algeria are initially hidden from both the spectator and his boss. (It's worth noting that Fellag himself emigrated to France in the '90s, probably not solely so he could expand his acting opportunities.) Almost as soon as Lazhar's secrets are fully revealed, the film ends. It's no melodrama, and in screenwriting-formula terms, it lacks a third act.
But Falardeau is more interested in character study. Lazhar brings a touch of Old World rigor and manners to North America. At first, this leads to some muted culture-clash comedy, as when he expects a sixth-grade class to understand Balzac. His students are middle-class and almost all white; their biggest problems seem to stem from their previous teacher's suicide. Yet Monsieur Lazhar has no agenda about the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, a problem it never addresses. (Were it made in the U.S. rather than Canada, I can't imagine this would be the case.) Its pointed jabs are reserved for the PC bureaucracy of Canadian schools, where a student suffering from a migraine can't be given an aspirin and teachers are forbidden from touching their pupils. The film is clearly nostalgic for older, more informal days.
Fellag and the film's ensemble cast of children develop a believable rapport. Monsieur Lazhar never overplays the trauma of suicide, instead exploring how it plays out over a period of months. It also lets Lazhar's relationships with his fellow teachers play out naturally as well. In retrospect, it becomes apparent that the film tackles big issues in a crowd-pleasing manner: It was rewarded for doing so with an Oscar nomination and several Genies, the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Award. But where a Robin Williams vehicle would wear uplift on its sleeve, Monsieur Lazhar is a small-scale triumph that leaves one wondering what will happen to its vulnerable characters after the credits roll.