If Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t win the Oscar, I’d like to see the movie that does!

This is the second straight year that a French-Canadian film has been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.  I saw last year’s selection, Denys Arcard’s Incendies, and came away impressed with its international tale of intrigue.  Pity that it lost out to Danish film In a Better World, which I can’t say I’ve seen, or even heard of–before or since.

This year’s representative from the Democratic Republic of Quebec (it’s a joke from the movie) doesn’t really compare to the Arcand film.  There’s a lot less action; it’s much more low-key–and low-budget.  And while Monsieur Lazhar does touch on the same theme of immigration, the old country vs. the new, it does so in a completely different fashion.

I gotta say, the idea of the unlikely newcomer taking over a class and connecting with his students is nothing new in Hollywood.  From Kindergarten Cop to The School of Rock to Bad Teacher, it’s been done before.  Only in this case, Monsieur Lazhar can’t be considered a comedy.  How many “new teacher” films begin with the old prof hanging from the ceiling?  Pretty heavy stuff…

When the sixth-grade teaching position suddenly becomes available, in walks Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who offers himself for the job, claiming to have nearly 20 years experience in his home country.  Only Monsieur Lazhar isn’t quite who he claims to be, as it turns out he’s not a landed immigrant, but rather a refugee claimant whose family was killed in a terrorist attack and is trying to prove that he can’t go back home.  Oh, and it’s his wife, not himself, who was a teacher in Algeria.

Alas, while his methods are a little traditional and out-of-date–I never even studied Honoré de Balzac in high school, nevermind sixth grade!–his past makes him well-positioned to confront the tragedy the kids are coping with, one which the rest of the school seems quite content to sweep under the rug.  And though his methods don’t follow the new-age, no-contact form of teaching, he still manages to connect with his kids.

I won’t spoil the ending, though it’s not the kind you’d see in Hollywood, I will say that.  I think the main message here is that today’s age of treating kids like “nuclear waste”–don’t touch or get too close–isn’t necessarily what’s best for them, and it takes an outsider to show just how silly this is.  This point is driven home by solid acting performances from Mohamed Fellag in the title role, as well as some of the young actors, particularly Sophie Nélisse as Alice, the troubled teacher’s pet from a single-parent household, and Émilien Néron as Simon, the class bully with deep-rooted issues.  The latter in particular reminds me of a young, francophone Brendan Fletcher, who made his acting debut in the 1995 made-for-TV movie Little Criminals. (Néron only has one previous bit part in a TV movie to his credit.)  Let’s just say that if you can take on a serious, dramatic role at such a young age, you’ve probably got a future in the business.  Mind you, Fletcher has mostly become known for schlocky horror films of late, but I digress.

Now, I know that Iranian-made A Seperation has been getting a lotta good press, and is the odds-on favourite for Best Foreign Film, but if the judges would only think of the children, I think Monsieur Lazhar has a shot.

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