The last few decades in Hollywood were awash with inspirational schoolhouse dramas that pitted an exuberant, maverick teacher against a sea of uninspired but capable students. There was always a happy ending — either through fate or fortune, the teacher managed to change the lives of every dangerous mind under his or her influence. Sadly, anyone who has ever endured public schooling, be it in a bustling city or a sleepy suburb, understands that such tidy outcomes are more the stuff of legend than reality.
This decade has been a little different. “Half Nelson” (2006), an underrated drama starring Ryan Gosling as a drug-dependent middle school teacher, brought much-needed realism to the dynamics of change in the classroom. Then, there was “The Wire” (arguably the best television drama ever produced), whose fourth season about Baltimore’s public school system turning the trials of public education into an epic poem.
“The Class” (“Entre les Murs”), continues the shift in the urban teacher drama from fluffy fantasy to documentary truth. The film doesn’t heavy-handedly presume that one teacher can miraculously save the whole host of downtrodden and dissident students in the classroom; nor does it purport to provide plotlines of false hope to the lives of inner city children. Rather, “The Class” is a fly on the wall — for 120 minutes, you get a rare glimpse into the French school system, teeming with ethnic divides and wholly complex pedagogical issues.
The film, by French director Laurent Cantent (“Human Resources”), acts as a documentary-drama, adapting the eponymous autobiography by François Bégaudeau, a literature teacher in an inner city middle school. In a rare move, Bégaudeau plays himself, and all of the actors in the classroom are real French students, hired by Cantent and trained to work with Béagaudeau for a year before filming.
In the film, François is set to spend a year teaching French to these students. His unorthodox style, a mix of off-handed comments and unapologetic discipline, slowly rubs the class the wrong way, as the story chronicles the back and forth jabs between teacher and student.
As François struggles to impact his class, he must also face the realities of the school system, from budget cuts and parent deportations to student expulsions and unwelcome heuristics.
Rarely do films employ a pace and cadence that matches the very subject matter it addresses, but “The Class” does so daringly. We all remember public school — there’s the extremely banal and mundane days when you just want to go home and play “Tony Hawk,” and then there’s the palpable excitement of learning something new, playing pick-up basketball during lunch or being awarded for achievements.
The film plays on these wavering emotions, for just when you think the conflict has dried up and school is boring again, the chemistry between the students and teachers comes to a boiling point, luring you right back into the thick of the plot.
The sociological themes of race and identity explored in the film are bolstered by the veracity and depth of the film’s dialogue. Language is the currency in the classroom, as Bégaudeau banters back and forth with his students, all topics fair game, from homosexuality to the seemingly archaic imperfect indicative (the viewer may learn some grammar, too).
Language also comes to haunt Bégaudeau, as a verbal slip-up sets up the climax of the film. The discussions seem to emerge out of the fabric of the characters rather than act as a strategic plotting device, and slowly all the dialogues come together to create an important message about the changing dynamics and demographics of France’s youth.
In witnessing the classroom drama unfold, you not only come to respect the patience of these teachers, but more so the courage of these students, all of whom were whisked away from some other land, brought under the umbrella of Paris, and taught to favor French patriotism over their own disparate allegiances. For these students, school is a compound sentence in an otherwise fragmented, run-on existence.
“The Class” wisely does not insult the children’s intelligence, but reveals their creativity, brashness, courage and rebellion. It celebrates ethnic and social conflict in the 21st century classroom, for pedagogy without dissent is merely tyranny without consent.
Shot with only three digital cameras on a shoestring budget, the filming style consists of close-ups of teachers and students going about their routines in the schoolhouse. You won’t see the city, the streets, the neighborhoods, the shops, the yards, the skyscrapers or any of the places mentioned inside of the classrooms — and that’s the point: “The Class” is the country, in microcosm.