The Oscar-nominated French film The Class could qualify as a remedial course for audiences who believe that "inspirational teacher" films like Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver impart all the lessons you need about the educational system.
In The Class, teacher and award-winning novelist François Bégaudeau plays a fictionalized version of himself, a middle-school French instructor who tries to explain the imperfect subjunctive to rebellious 13- to 15-year-olds from an inner-city Parisian neighborhood. Rather than earn Hollywood-style standing ovations from his students, François faces insolent challenges and constant low-level chatter. At times he seems more like a comedian talking over hecklers on open-mic night.
Director Laurent Cantet, whose previous films include the mournful white-collar drama Time Out, restricts the action entirely to the classroom and various faculty offices, so we never glimpse the home lives of François or his students (played with impeccable realism by actual students). Instead, the classes prove to be scenes of near-constant conflict, including one outburst of violence. The audience easily sympathizes with François' attempts to keep order and stay on message, giving The Class more real tension, in its soft-spoken way, than your average heist thriller.
François deflects inquiries about his sexuality and negotiates questions of respect and political correctness with his racially polyglot students. François clearly cares about his students, and is saddened when one young woman (Rachel Régulier) inexplicably turns from friendly to chilly. But he also lets them get under his skin, leading to an outburst that has consequences he can't easily erase.
Recently, "The Wire's" fourth season offered a devastating portrayal of the failures of the American inner-city educational system. The Class similarly includes plenty of bureaucratic critiques. Faculty meetings and disciplinary hearings suggest that François' stressed-out peers seem more concerned with maintaining the status quo and following rules to the letter than showing flexibility in the best interest of the kids. The Class also suggests that the students and teachers have cultural differences that could be insurmountable. When an immigrant mother's only translator is her sullen, uncooperative son, how can any communication happen?
The Class can leave you disheartened and uncertain about the very value of high school education for some young people. At least Cantet and Bégaudeau's commitment to documentary-style naturalism makes you feel like you learned something.
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