"Monsieur Lazhar" is adapted from a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière about an Algerian immigrant, Bachir Lazhar, who's hurriedly hired at an elementary school to take the place of Martine, a teacher who committed suicide. She hanged herself in her classroom and the student who found her, a boy named Simon (Émilien Néron), and his best friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse), become the conduits through which we see the effect the incident is having on her class. The teachers, a caring and engaged bunch, are also deeply upset by the death of their colleague, though they prefer to focus their attention on the children rather than acknowledge their own emotional state -- "Everyone thinks we're traumatized, but it's the adults who are," Alice insists.
Lazhar is not a "Dead Poets Society"-style fiery inspirational teacher, though he slowly becomes a better one. What he does have to offer is a fresh perspective on an academic ecosystem that, like a well-meaning but dysfunctional family, is infected with unspoken resentments and distress. Lazhar isn't just a newcomer to the school, he's a newcomer to Canada, and his process of finding his place there is paired with his attempts to formalize his legal status in the country as his tragedy-filled background is unveiled. His path toward cultural assimilation is a little cutesy, though it brushes over a few ideas -- that, for instance, his foreignness makes him romantically appealing to a fellow teacher who's into travel and ethnic music, or that he refuses to answer the class' one Arabic-speaking student in anything other than French -- that are barbed and interesting.
Fellag, with his tentative posture and slightly unsure smile, is a charming and appealing figure, whether dealing with students (he observes a game of King Of The Hill in the snow, unsure whether he should intervene or if it's the norm) or the romantic advances of a fellow teacher who invites him over for dinner. He has his first encounter with Rice Krispie treats. And he has a great moment in which he announces the elephant in the room, the issue that everyone's been sidestepping -- that Martine's suicide was a tragedy, but her choice to end her life at the school and in a place where students were bound to find her was an act of selfishness and cruelty against the kids to which she'd been so devoted. It's the main stroke of drama in a film that otherwise often seems as much meek as it is restrained -- it's rare to see a film in which all of the characters are so nice, but it also provides challenges Monsieur Lazhar doesn't quite overcome. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from SXSW.