Montreal grade school students Simon (Emilien Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nelisse who brings to mind the American actress Anna Chlumsky at that age) discover the body of their teacher Martine hanging in their classroom one morning. Each morning it is the duty of one of the students to bring a carton of milk into the classroom and it is Simon's turn that day. This will prove a salient point later.
The school's principal (Danielle Proulx) frantically hires a substitute teacher Bachir Lazhar (comedian/writer Fellag), a recently arrived Algerian, when he approaches her after learning of the tragedy in the media.
Lazhar's personal history is complicated. He arrives as a refugee driven out by the violence in Algeria where he has lost family members after a terrorist attack but he poses as a permanent resident with a teaching background to obtain the job. He has a strong love of French culture that he tries to instill in the somewhat resistant students (dictation from a tome by Pascal raises some eyebrows) but they slowly seem to be coming around.
M. Lazhar's relationship with Alice (Sophie Nelisse) is most affecting and charming. They compare their places of birth (his is "Alger la blanche" - Algier the White - hers is Montreal City of Sludge). She cites herself as his favourite and seems to be the moral conscience of the classroom.
Simon, a high-spirited boy, appears to be involved somehow in the suicide of the teacher and there is some resentment in the school towards him, particularly with his friend Alice. Simon has a disconcerting habit of taking photos at unexpected times in the classroom.
The story approaches the children from two angles: one teacher comments that the students have to be treated like radioactive waste now - no physical contact at all is permitted - an atmosphere that creates a mild paranoia and fear amongst the teachers. There is suggestion that a misunderstanding between the teacher Martine having physical contact with Simon lead to an allegation of inappropriate behavior and hence her suicide. In the classroom. On the day that Simon was to bring the milk before class.
As the camera rests on the pretty faces of the students, the filmmaker seems to be saying that the Montreal classroom now resembles a more diverse community - Arabic-speaking and black students, hyphenated Anglo and French names, mixed cultural parentage are now the norm.This is the new Montreal.
Monsieur Lazhar has his own theories about how to deal with the suicide that appear to disturb the rest of the staff. That he encourages the children to speak of her death is enough to prompt an investigation into his background and sets in motion a course of action from which he can't retreat.
Fellag is wonderful as the gentle, battered substitute teacher who is somewhat befuddled but charmed by Quebecois culture and striving to forget some horrific secrets of his own.
|The enchanting Alice (Sophie Nelisse) ...|