The students in the outstanding new French schoolroom docudrama The Class are rambunctious — without the benefit of Michelle Pfeiffer as a former Marine to inspire their Dangerous Minds. They’ve got trouble at home — and no reform-minded Hilary Swank to encourage them to become Freedom Writers. There’s no fancy prep school for these lowincome kids in a tough Parisian neighborhood — many of them immigrants in the new, uneasily multiethnic France — and you can be sure no one is going to leap up and recite ”O Captain! My Captain!” as if their prof were Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. In their young 14- and 15-year-old lives, no one has ever said to these teens, ”Lean on me.”
And yet: With a cast of ordinary French teenagers playing students just like themselves, and with actual schoolteacher François Bégaudeau re-creating the role of… himself, The Class is one of the most alive and engrossing movies ever to take on the rich, infinitely renewable topic of school-aslife, and make it feel real. Unscripted. And above all, honest. (It helps that Bégaudeau is essentially retracing the teaching year he documented in his book Entre les Murs, or Between the Walls.
The Class is directed by the astute French humanist Laurent Cantet with the same attention to subtleties of race and socioeconomics he brought to Human Resources and the prescient 2002 unemployment drama Time Out. Shooting digitally with a quick, prowling documentary style, Cantet is extraordinarily alert to the infinite adjustments adolescents negotiate in the course of a day at their desks — a day when they may be tired, or hurting at home, or feeling confused about what’s expected of them as boys, girls, students, and (with their African, Asian, and Arab roots) the future of France.
The unshowy honesty that Cantet displays feels particularly novel when he’s focused on Bégaudeau, a dedicated teacher who is, nevertheless, no hero; he’s got his own weaknesses of ego that his students immediately identify and prey on, like the natural savages that adolescents are, provoking him to speak with an anger that will not do in PC times. Indeed, the movie’s refusal to grade the prof’s performance can feel at times almost disconcerting to those of us so steeped in traditional American classroombased dramas and their comforting conventions. We like to know from the outset that, say, Meryl Streep and Richard Dreyfuss are guaranteed to inspire as music teachers in Music of the Heart and Mr. Holland’s Opus; that Edward James Olmos will turn his classroom of losers into calculus whizzes in Stand and Deliver; and that the white slum kids who give Sidney Poitier such a hard time early on in To Sir, With Love will also live up to the title in the end. Idealistic educators with unconventional methods (keep a journal! Declaim poetry! Throw out the curriculum!) are how we like to love them — and if the students are colorfully diverse, so much the better. For every cushy prep-school gig wangled by Williams in Dead Poets Society and Kevin Kline in The Emperor’s Club, five more onscreen classrooms will be filled with society?s multiethnic, sullen outcasts, resistant to learning.
Bégaudeau doesn’t solve crises for his kids — or for his colleagues, many of whom have worked at the school longer and have the cynicism to show for it. (The faculty interactions are equally precise, as are the delicate parent-teacher meetings, with real parents playing themselves.) The teacher, trained in pedagogy, is particularly challenged by a sassing provocateur of a girl, and by a quick-to-anger African boy. The students, meanwhile, create their own rich society, intricate, viable, and self-contained within the classroom walls. For once, they’re not adjuncts with colorful biographies created primarily to make the teacher — and the star playing that teacher — look even more noble. I make no claims for student autonomy being a particularly French character trait. But I do claim that the absence of ”star power” turns out to be the secret of this goldstar movie’s success. And that The Class — winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival — is in a class by itself. A