Monsieur Lazhar rightly won many awards after its initial release. (Among them was Best Feature at the Boulder International Film Festival.)
It is moving, emotional, honest, and genuine. Some movies attempt to pull those same strings and come across as manipulative or schmaltzy. Not so this Canadian drama starring a solidly likeable Mohamed Fellag.
A shocking opening scene sets up the story: A boy and a girl, schoolchildren, rush inside from recess to fetch milk for their classmates. Simon tries to open the door to his classroom but sees the body of a woman hanging, dead: his teacher.
Enter Mr. Lazhar (Fellag), an immigrant from Algiers, ready to fill the position. He’s an ambulance chaser or a vampire; he’s just desperate for work. The school hires him and the relationship between him and his students begins.
Two of his students’ reactions stand out. Simon seems troubled by the suicide, and so does Shanel. But where Shanel writes about it in class compositions — beautifully honest — Simon holds it in and acts out. Eventually they find a picture of the teacher in Simon’s pocket, with a noose and angel’s wings drawn in ballpoint pen.
Meanwhile, Monsieur Lazhar meets with an immigration officer to determine his status. His story comes to light slowly — he left Algiers for a reason, and there is a reason his wife and children have not come to Canada too. Finally, one of his colleagues makes a slight pass at him, forcing the question of Mr. Lazhar’s marriage.
Focus on the People
Monsieur Lazhar is excellent, in part because it has no political axe to grind. There are many issues — maybe most notable the issue of how children must be treated in public schools ("like nuclear waste — touch them in any way whatsoever and you will get burned"). But the movie isn’t about how paranoid teachers must be these days, nor is it about how "zero tolerance" is too unreasonable a goal — though those are valid points that the movie makes well.
Those are just the everyday issues that teachers in a difficult situation must deal with. The movie touches on them, but it doesn’t dwell on them. It’s more interested in the connections made between generations. But even that is insufficient in describing the film. The single best thing about it is that it never sells itself out to a single idea.
As in life, the people are what’s important. Monsieur Lazhar sticks with its characters through thick and thin.