Rating: 4 stars
American movies spend a lot of time in classrooms, but they usually don’t stick around for long. Most films about teachers—Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, even a tough-minded indie gem like Half Nelson—only have the patience to spend a few minutes at a time with the class. There’s some revelatory speech or life-changing confrontation and then—oh, look at that!—the bell conveniently rings and the students file out.
The bell rarely rings in The Class, and the inspirational moments are few and far between. Instead, we see what it’s like inside a real class in a rough Parisian neighborhood—the insolent kids, the fights breaking out, the maddening distractions, and, yes, the small triumphs. The film plays like a documentary, and it very nearly is: It stars French middle school teacher François Begaudeau as a version of himself, based on his memoirs. The students are played, with remarkable naturalism, by real French teens.
It may take American viewers a while to adjust to this film. There are no breakthroughs. There is very little catharsis. No one gets shot, there’s no high school musical, an underachiever doesn’t get into the Sorbonne. François’s character (also named François) is not a saint. He’s a good teacher, he cares. But he gets exasperated, he takes the bait the students so often throw him, he makes mistakes. His fellow teachers complain, commiserate, adopt a kind of gallows humor in the employee’s lounge—at one point, a colleague has a full-on meltdown.
François’s class is a microcosm of modern-day inner city Paris: The Arab students stick together; the Caribbean kids are suspicious of the African kids; there’s a shy smart Chinese boy who is perceived as getting preferential treatment; there’s a Goth kid; a brainy smart aleck white girl who wishes she were black; and so on.
François, who teaches literature, tries to keep the students on track. But they challenge his authority. They demand respect that they don’t give, seizing on every possible slight, accusing him of racism, and sexism, and classism. They know that these accusations carry extra weight so they wield them like weapons.
As for François, he’ll take any opportunity to engage the students, even if it means discussing soccer rivalries, his own sexuality, or a boy’s tattoo. But the kids take advantage of his willingness to digress. They’ll do anything to avoid a discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Many kids are featured in the movie, but if it has “stars” it would be Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), the bright girl whose inner turmoil manifests as a kind of defiance and the tragic case of Souleymane (Franck Keita), a Malian immigrant so jaded and disengaged, he can barely participate in class.
There is one moment about midway through the film where Souleymane has done well in a class project and François gives him praise. The tiniest hint of a smile creeps at Souleymane’s mouth. This is quite possibly the emotional highlight of Souleymane’s journey—maybe even of the film. That tiny smile positively breaks your heart.