In the startling opening moments of Monsieur Lazhar, two grade-school children glimpse what no one should ever have to see: a dead body—their teacher’s—hanging from the ceiling of their classroom. Simon (Émilien Néron), the kid who found her, is a bit of a troublemaker; his odd-couple friend, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who sneaks a peak when all the other students are being ushered frantically outside, is a model student. The entire school grieves, but that sight, no doubt seared into their minds, bonds them further even as it causes them to fight.
What they argue about is revealed slowly in Philippe Falardeau’s gentle drama, Canada’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar which the writer-director adapted and expanded from a one-man play. That it’s revealed at all is somewhat surprising considering the film’s failure to address its title character’s motivations: Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a recent Algerian immigrant who approaches the principal of the Quebec school and offers his services as a teacher. Though there’s usually a hiring protocol, Lazhar convinces the principal that the students need an instructor immediately to help them move past the traumatic event.
The kids are open to Lazhar, but he proves a rigid, old-fashioned taskmaster who teaches Balzac, Molière, and other topics beyond their years. He’s not opposed to slapping a bratty student upside the head, which leads him to be lectured about not touching the students at all, not even for a hug or pat on the back (“Today, you work with kids like with radioactive waste”). At the same time, Lazhar is working through a personal tragedy and is in danger of being deported. Also: He’s never taught before in his life.
Monsieur Lazhar is little more than a mildly engrossing slice-of-life. Whereas Fellag’s Lazhar is somewhat prickly and difficult to get behind, the kids are magnetic, particularly Nélisse’s big-eyed Alice, who insists discussing the suicide outside of the class’s designated hour with a “there, there” psychologist. The film’s most interesting angle is its debate over a teacher’s physical contact with the students, but it enters almost as an afterthought. How instructors and students can lean on each other to heal is a less obvious theme, and Lazhar reveals so little of himself to anyone that it’s difficult to say whether that’s what led him to teach in the first place. Lazhar may make an impression on some of the children, but he remains a stranger to us.