Sometimes, people who survive tragedies from two different worlds come together to find comfort and happiness together. Such is the case in Phillippe Felardeau’s straightforward and poignant film Monsier Lazhar, Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Set in a Montreal elementary school, tension immediately escalates when a young student discovers that his teacher has committed suicide in the classroom. Soon an Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) is hired as a substitute teacher. Lazhar harbors a few darkly tragic secrets of his own, and until those come to light, he and his students help one another to find some peace and structure in their lives.
The great strength of Falardeau’s film lies in its naturalistic storytelling. The mysteries surrounding Bachir’s past, and those involving the students leading up to their teacher’s demise, unfold with a subtlety that hooks you for the full duration of 94 minutes. There are also some truly captivating performances by a number of fresh faces to American cinema.
Fellag anchors the film with an understated, quietly powerful performance as the teacher who dictates Balzac to his 11 year-old students, and rearranges their desks into straight lines. Falardeau has also discovered some fantastic child actors who put our memories of young Haley Joel Osment to shame: most particularly Sophie Nelisse as the bright-eyed Alice, and Emilien Neron as guilt-ridden Simon.
Monsieur Lazhar makes a strong argument for the value of unexpected or unlikely heroes without being overtly political. The message is carried by a strong, yet simple trick: good storytelling.
Running Time: 94 minutes.