"The Class," the new film from director Laurent Cantet ("Time Out," "Heading South") comes garlanded with the top prize from the Cannes film festival and an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film.
Such honours might set up misleading expectations. On the surface, at least, this is a small, modest, observational film that refrains from grand gestures and sweeping statements. That it actually cuts to the core of so many issues around identity, education and multiculturalism is testament to its powerful and uncompromising authenticity.
It is a new school year. At a staff meeting veteran teachers introduce themselves to fresh-faced new colleagues, wish them luck and give them friendly pointers on the problem kids.
Francois Marin is already familiar with most of the 11th-grade students in his French class. They are a mixed bunch, girls and boys reflecting the multicultural make up of their working-class Parisian neighbourhood: native French are just one clique among immigrant children from North Africa, China and the Caribbean.
The Hollywood movie audience is quite familiar with the problem of engaging kids who have more pressing things on their minds than old books and the imperfect subjunctive. We know how this will go: an idealistic, if unconventional teacher meets the kids halfway. Keep John Keats in your back pocket; start off with Kanye and Lil Wayne and hope the school board doesn't find out.
At first, Marin seems to fit the bill. He's patient, firm but fair and recognises that digression can impart more valuable learning than any lesson plan. Over the course of the school year he reaches out to the most reticent and challenging kids -- in particular Souleymanne (Franck Keita), a boy from Mali who has been written off by most of his teachers, but who produces a remarkable, touching self-portrait when Francois allows him to use photographs in place of words.
Still, things don't turn out quite how you might think. In this case, good intentions are not enough.
All too often in American movies these days high school students are impersonated by young actors in their late teens and twenties. Cantet's approach is more exacting, much closer to documentary realism. The filmmaker went to a school in the 20th arrondisement of Paris and devoted nearly a year to weekly three-hour workshops with students, half of who ended up in the movie, along with their real-life parents and teachers.
Francois Marin is played by Francois Begaudeau, a former teacher whose autobiographical novel "Entre les murs" ("Between the Walls") was a primary source for the film. Even so, much of the script came out of improvisations developed with the children in the workshops. Shooting took place in the school over the summer, Cantet following the dialogue with three video cameras that supplied him with 150 hours of raw footage.
"The Class" offers an incisive, challenging microcosm of a 21st-century western democracy struggling to assimilate diverse ethnicities and cultures while validating its own heritage. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that in the end it becomes a study of power and privilege, even if Hollywood has failed to condition its audience for such an outcome.
Of course, if you're looking for a happy ending, be assured that in movie-making terms Cantet's kids graduate with honours. So does his film.
Compiled by Cultural Correspondent