You can recognize the shape of the Canadian Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar at 500 yards. It follows the pattern of legions of films, from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Ciao, Professore!, complete with the emphasis on the seasonal change: a wintry classroom giving way to leafy summer as the school year ends.
Director-writer Philipe Falardeau reflects a cosmopolitan Montreal in the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a widowed Algerian immigrant who steps up to take the place of a beloved teacher who hanged herself right in the classroom, and whose 11–12-year-old students are played by seriously adroit child actors. Sophie Nélisse is the winsome Alice, the teacher's pet; Émilien Néron is shrewd as the boy who likes Alice, but who has been acting out badly ever since he found his teacher dead. Vincent Millard is the fatter aggro boy who loves to play King of the Hill in the snow; he has political tragedy in his own family background.
This special kind of tragedy is essential to Lazhar's own story, too. It's part of Monsieur Lazhar's restraint that the teacher guards his personal history from others. We only really learn Lazhar's backstory during his sessions with the jesting-Pilate types who work on the Canadian refugee board. (One of them is vastly amused and affronted that the greenhorn Lazhar dared to apply for help from "the Republic of Quebec.")
Fellag's dry performance makes Lazhar an enigmatic character: a born teacher, reserved, old-worldly, funny, but ready to shut out his colleagues if they get too close. Fellag's covert acting goes beyond simple tragedy. It becomes a study of a grave, walled-in and perhaps even limited man.
Two groups would seem to be particularly taken by this film. Parents are one. Despite the suicide, the Quebec school here is so startlingly well-run and trouble-free that it provides fantasy material for Californians. And Monsieur Lazhar discusses a constant matter of anxiety for teachers: how to handle children seeking reassurance and affection.
'Monsieur Lazhar' opens Friday, May 25, at Summerfield Cinemas.