Émilien Néron and Sophie Nélisse in Monsieur Lazhar
(Courtesy of Music Box Films)
Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar was nominated in this year’s foreign language Oscar category and it’s easy to see why. Based on the play Bachir Lazhar by Evelyn de la Cheneliere, it avoids the ordinary pitfalls of the standard “inspirational teacher” drama and it is elevated by terrific performances from both adults and children who play characters in shades of gray rather than broad black and white strokes.
Following the suicide of a Montreal elementary school teacher, a middle-aged Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) turns up at the school and offers himself as a replacement. Having read of the suicide in the paper, Lazhar sees an opportunity to circumvent the ordinary hiring process. The understaffed school meanwhile, eager to quickly bounce back from the trauma, takes a chance on him. Bachir, who is dealing with his own tragic loss, at first aims a little higher than his class of 10-year-olds is able to reach (on his first day he introduces them to Balzac), while the children struggle to cope with their feelings of loss and abandonment on top of more routine growing pains. Complicating matters further, teacher and student alike have a few secrets that come to light as the drama progresses.
As the title character, Algerian actor Fellag is the foundation of Monsieur Lazhar. His kindly, soulful face and gentle manner win the audience over as quickly as his character wins over his skeptical students and co-workers. Also excellent are the young actors who play the students. Especially good are newcomers Emilien Neron as the troubled Simon, the one who first discovers his teacher’s body, and Sophie Nelisse who won a supporting actress Genie awards as Alice, Simon’s classmate who challenges Lazhar as much as he challenges her. Both young actors (Neron is now 13 while Nelisse is 11) work through a lot of complex emotions, but in ways that real 10 or 11-year-olds would deal with them. They are funny and relatable, but they can be difficult and irrational too, just like real little kids and without the precocity that too often infects juvenile roles. It will be interesting to see how these two kids mature as performers.
With equal parts gentle humor and drama, Monsieur Lazhar charms as easily and quietly as its title character. It eschews obvious emotional extremes for a more thoughtful middle where characters become more important than story beats. It’s unassuming nature might make it easy to overlook, but you shouldn’t. The rewards are well worth it.
Check out LiC’s interview with director Philippe Falardeau here.
Filed under: Review