In The Class (Entre les murs), François Bégaudeau stars as himself in the semi-autobiographical drama about a year in the life of a teacher in an inner city Parisian school. Directed by Laurent Cantet, the movie went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Picture. It is indeed one of the best movies of 2008.
When the Oscar nominees were announced, I balked that Tell No One, easily one of the best movies of 2008, was not France’s submission for the Academy Awards. Instead, the boring-looking drama The Class, was their selection. The previews showed a young teacher talking with his students and his students talking back to him. The Bourne Supremacy, here we come.
In reality, The Class is exactly what the previews suggested: a bunch of scenes about a teacher and his interactions with his students. There’s no score or soundtrack. There’s no overarching plot or criminal element, a la Dangerous Minds. The movie isn’t about a teacher who turns around a bunch of backward kids and makes them believe in something. The movie isn’t meant to be inspiring or dramatic. It is, simply, about a teacher and his students. And for some reason, the alignment of planets or the perfect chemical combination, The Class works extremely well.
This should be boring, and it so easily could have been. But The Class is interesting, engaging and addictive, an accurate snapshot of a typical classroom and a teacher who cares, perhaps a bit too much. The students, most of them played by first-time actors, are incredibly diverse, in race, intelligence and attitude, just like in a real classroom. Furthermore, they all turn in strong performances; I didn’t know they were amateurs until I looked them up on IMDB. Rachel Regulier and Frack Keita are particularly strong as Khoumba and Souleymane.
Bégaudeau’s portrayal of… well, himself… is excellent. What I liked most about him is that his character isn’t flawless; while his students can understandably frustrate him, his desires to be both friends with his students and their instructor simultaneously result in him walking a fine line, one that he sometimes wavers from. His temper and passion can get him and others into trouble, and his actions even result in the expulsion of a student – even though the student’s guilt was questionable.
More importantly, The Class explains what is wrong with the current schooling system. Though the film is set in France, there isn’t a huge difference between a school there and a school here; there are going to be students of all intellectual and emotional disciplines, and teachers who don’t know how to handle such kids. Even the best of teachers can’t deal with every type of student; some will glide through, others will struggle but make it, and a few, as exemplified in the touching last scene of the movie, will fall through the cracks completely. The schooling system needs to figure out a better way to cater to more diverse groups, and teachers need to figure out how to keep kids inline, not simply by punishing them when they misbehave.
The Class is a surprisingly superb drama that works despite the lack of the ordinary theatrical elements we’ve come to expect.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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