That’s the stumper of a question I get from friends and especially quality-starved film fans at the video store this time of year, when the Oscar DVDs have all come and gone and superheroes threaten to colonize every available space in the new release section.
Well, I’ll tell you what’s good: Monsieur Lazhar is good. Really good. Philippe Falardeau’s gentle, perceptive drama takes viewers by the hand, not the throat, leading them through volatile emotional territory with assurance, compassion and lucid, steady-eyed calm. Deceptively simple and straightforward, Monsieur Lazhar resembles a clear, clean glass of water: transparent, utterly devoid of gratuitous flavorings or frou-frou, and all the more bracing and essential for it.
Among the many gifts that arrive by way of Monsieur Lazhar is an introduction to Fellag, a well-known actor in Algeria who is making his North American breakout cinematic performance here. Like Demian Bichir in A Better Life last year, the 61-year-old Fellag arrives with the revelatory exhilaration that more often greets a young newcomer. Here, he plays the title character, a teacher in Montreal who signs on as a substitute at a middle school after the sudden departure of a beloved teacher.
Monsieur Lazhar chronicles events in the classroom throughout the year, as Lazhar tries to help his students cope with feelings of abandonment and loss, while balancing educational policy that requires teachers to relate to children at a physical and emotional distance (or, as one character puts it, "like hazardous waste"). As the details of Lazhar’s own life come into focus, his journey and that of his charges begin to dovetail in mournful, deeply meaningful ways: In essence, Monsieur Lazhar is a study in boundaries, at their most impregnable and porous.
Falardeau has done an astonishing job (or had astonishingly good luck) in finding child actors to portray the alternately wise and immature kids in Lazhar’s class: Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron stand out as Alice and Simon, whose shared, highly charged experience of their original teacher’s absence threatens to upend their friendship and invests their relationship with Lazhar with particularly high stakes.
Fellag is known mostly as a comedian in Algeria, and he subtly mines the understated but rich veins of humor that run through Monsieur Lazhar, especially in his encounters with neurotic bourgeois parents, not to mention the wonderfully quirky, mercurial kids themselves.
But for the most part, this is a sad, elegiac film that’s not only willing to take on thorny issues of violence, justice, ethics and how adults keep faith with children, but has the courage not to lie about them.
Like that glass of cool water, Monsieur Lazhar achieves its own sort of crystalline perfection — in simply telling the truth, and telling the truth simply.