The fourth feature from the brilliant, socially conscious and philosophically rigorous director Laurent Cantet is a movie about a teacher in a room full of students. The teacher is a dedicated young man, and the students are disobedient teenagers. Their story begins on the first day of one school year and ends on the last. It takes place in the sort of underprivileged neighborhood that movies about teachers in rooms full of students have encouraged you to think of as the inner city. But this is Paris; the way the zoning works here, and the privilege, it’s the outer city. That matters not just because outsiderhood is so thematically important to The Class, but also because the film goes so confidently in the opposite direction of what you’d expect.
For example, if you make a list of movies about teachers in rooms full of students, you’ll quickly start to feel like a huckster of inspirational clichés. You’ll come up with titles like Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Dead Poets Society, and Stand and Deliver. If you’re old enough, or encyclopedic enough, you may even also recall To Sir, with Love and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In any case, you’ll get the sense that such a list might go on forever, and that the movies in question are all basically similar, even if some are better than others. (And don’t even get started on the movies about coaches in gyms full of players.) Part of what makes The Class different is that it’s better than all of them put together.
It is almost shockingly unsentimental. To begin with, this teacher is not a rousing inspiration. He’s a real teacher, François Bégaudeau, who in 2006 wrote a book called Entre les Murs (Between the Walls) about his experience teaching French in a Paris public school, then adapted it with Cantet and the director’s regular co-writer Robin Campillo for this film, in which Bégaudeau plays a version of himself–by turns a patient progressive and an exasperated authoritarian–among students playing versions of themselves. As a flawed white overseer of African, Arab and Asian youngsters who trust neither his authority nor any multi-culti platitudes of their mutual Frenchness, he has his work cut out.
The student-teacher relationship here has less to do with structured enlightenment than with the tense dynamics of traded power. As elaborated through variously enraging, variously humbling standoffs, the stakes rise as high as in a melodrama of hostage negotiation. And when the students, on vigilant guard against his condescension, catch their teacher in an accidental slur, this rangy, lifelike near-documentary suddenly takes on the moral force and dramatic angularity of a David Mamet play. Yet it never feels like artifice. It has distance, but not indifference.
Cantet and Campillo’s nimbleness with social-issue drama is by now well established. In their feature debut, 1998’s Human Resources, a young factory manager lays off his own father. In 2002’s Time Out, a suburban executive goes for months without telling his family that he’s been fired. In 2005’s Heading South, comfortable middle-aged white bitties travel to Haiti as sexual tourists.
The Class continues its makers’ tradition of candid cinematic intelligence. It’s also a benchmark in the education-movie continuum. For authenticity alone, maybe Frederick Wiseman’s classic documentary High School comes closest, but that film exudes a slyly hectoring superiority, whereas Cantet and company’s even-handed approach–even though it’s fiction–seems more honest. This won’t just defy your expectations; it’ll school you.