Of principals and principles

French schoolhouse drama motivates and devastates

The Class
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Francois Begaudeau
Director: Laurent Cantet
WorkNameSort: Class, The
Our Rating: 4.00

You probably went to Francoise Dolto Junior High. The students are all clicking tongues, rolling eyes and tapping feet; the teachers are made up of chalk dust and ground molars. They don't look like Michelle Pfeiffer, and they don't act like Edward James Olmos. The only thing anyone has in common is the reprieve offered by the ringing bell.

For anyone who spends one hour a day with kids like these, let alone five days a week, 30-something weeks a year, bad behavior is to be expected and best intentions are rare at best. It's all the more remarkable that director Laurent Cantet (Heading South) has harnessed that inherent drama into 128 minutes of The Class, which fly by considerably faster than the same length of time spent with the Mac guy and Rachel from Friends.

Between a win at last year's Cannes Film Festival and a nomination at this year's Academy Awards, he must be doing something right ' namely, keeping it real.

François Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a teacher at Francoise Dolto whose documented school year is not unlike that of Bégaudeau's 2006 novel Between the Walls, an autobiographical tale of the banalities and challenges of the average Parisian school year. Some students simply won't get it, some teachers simply won't get out without caving in to the daily frustration, and then it's time to meet the new class, same as the old class.

The students, naturally, are no more professional than their instructors. They're played by actual students at Francoise Dolto who were encouraged by Cantet to improvise and otherwise form their own characters.

In the tidiest pitch-speak, it's the Dardennes do Degrassi, a proudly meandering and convincingly intimate glimpse at the epic battle waged against apathy in school systems the world over. When the brats wield slang loudly and proudly, Mr. Marin offers up synonyms as an alternative, and when that doesn't work, he gently but deftly turns their own sarcasm and humiliation tactics against them. When any of them misbehave ' Mr. Marin included ' there are consequences to bear.

Although the film doesn't pander to audiences with a conventional climax (they don't win a big game or the science fair) a reckoning does come, as conflicts between Marin and his students and concerns from his superiors and the parents flare up. Leave it to the French teacher to let loose upon his multicultural microcosm the follies and fallout of miscommunication, after struggling so hard to instill social responsibility in their stubborn little brains.

Not all hope is lost, though. Some students actually absorb some knowledge against the odds, even the belligerent ones. Bégaudeau's swift wit and utter dedication craft a tableau credible and compelling enough for Cantet's even swifter camera crew to capture so that the feel-good moments uplift and the inevitable disappointments ring terribly true.

While everyone shuffles off for their final recess, Cantet lets the film linger on the empty, disheveled rows of desks left behind.

In doing so, he makes a simple yet loud statement as the cheers fade in the distance: It's not the place, but rather the people who make the difference between mere schooling and a true education.

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