In Truffaut’s wonderful Small Change (1976), after a tragedy, a schoolteacher gives a speech about the resiliency of children and how far too often adults take this resiliency to be an invitation for abuse. This speech might have been the inspiration for Philippe Falardeau’s warm and gentle Monsieur Lazhar (2011), which in many of the best ways, resembles Small Change.
Monsieur Lazhar takes place in a French-Canadian grade school, where an 11-year-old named Simon (Émilien Néron) brings a carton of milk into his literature classroom only to discover the teacher has hanged herself. The students are immediately excused and the principal Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) addresses them about the loss, imploring them to speak to the faculty about their feelings, especially the school psychologist. The literature classroom is repainted. Soon, a man appears, out of nowhere and with no references like Mary Poppins, inquiring about the vacant teaching position, which has not been posted. His name is Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) and he was a teacher for two decades in his native Algeria. He’s hired as a substitute that becomes more and more permanent.
At first the students are uneasy with him—he asks too much of them, having them recite material they feel to be beyond their level—but quickly they respond to his direct and adult style. He teaches unlike any other teacher in the school, unlike any they’ve ever had. He’s stern but humanistic, not bending the rules for certain individuals but understanding that some saddles don’t fit all horses. The students reaction to the traumatic events all manifest in different ways and they can intuit immediately that Monsieur Lazhar will not prescribe universal salvos but personal consultation. He is resisted in this by Vaillancourt, who would rather see grief handled by the psychologist, and by certain parents who are uneasy with their children being taught anything other than literature by the literature teacher.
Therein lies what Monsieur Lazhar is really about. It might share the same tone as Small Change, which was about universal truths of childhood, but Lazhar starts out as a tale about children but evolves into a frank discussion about the state of education. Falardeau, who also wrote the screenplay, is very sly in his gradual shift from the specific story of this classroom and this teacher to a universal one about the impossible demands of educators in a wary world. We meet the other faculty and they seem to be caricatures; certainly that’s the case for the pencil-pushing Vaillancourt and the dim physical education teacher, Gaston (Jules Philip), who seems like he’d rather spin his whistle about then actually teach. But gradually we understand that these tenured teachers were pushed into their roles by the unruly demands of parents and boards who expect their children to not just be taught but essentially be raised by the school without any mention of sex, religion or politics and certainly no physical contact.
Lazhar is informed of the zero tolerance policy the school has about touching between students and teachers. I haven’t touched anyone, he says, apparently forgetting about the previous scene when he lightly slapped the back of a boy’s head for being insolent. This incident went without notice for Lazhar and must have done the same for the boy, though it’s unlikely he’ll be insolent in that way anymore. Later, Gaston, who has heretofore seemed so unthinking, incisively vents his frustrations about the policy. “Do you know how difficult it is to teach about the pummel-horse without touching any of the students?” he asks. “It’s impossible. Now I just make them run with my whistle like an asshole.” We see a man who wanted to be an educator who got turned into a babysitter.
The plot follows the more sensational material of the class and its resolving of the teacher’s suicide as Lazhar mentors a sensitive girl (Sophie Nélisse) while keeping his eye on the brooding Simon, whose peace of mind deteriorates. But always the undercurrent is on the impossibility of bringing up little persons in an impersonal way. The movie has a secret about Lazhar that it reveals at the end, and though it’s not shocking, it furthers the movie’s thesis that the standardization of the teaching profession is rubbing out an essential element of the educational experience: human compassion.
The movie has some bravado moments of high drama, but it’s better as a quiet movie, exposing truth in small scenes as opposed to theatrics. There’s a subplot about Lazhar’s background that feels less like essential character shading and more like filler. Just the same, during its slow moments of interaction between student and teacher, it exposes more passion than all its big speeches and confrontations.
This is a thoughtful movie, one whose plot, while compelling, doesn’t linger as long as its ideas do. Not every student goes through something like these students do, thank goodness, but every student comes to a time of crisis that’s very important to them. Monsieur Lazhar argues that the help for that crisis can be very simple, if you’re willing to think the best of people and not assume the worst.