In Laurent Cantet's The Class, high school teacher Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) is shocked to learn that his students routinely leave the lower-class fringe environs of the 20th Arrondissement for the more glamorous precincts of central Paris. The movie does not follow them on these excursions, containing itself within the struggling public school it documents. This initially jars. Faculty introductions and rote grammar lessons dominate the first hour of The Class, which opens on the first day back from summer vacation. Francois teaches French to a group of “nice, but tough,” mostly immigrant students. He’s a delicate wisp of a man (and thus the froggiest of the bunch) perpetually struggling for control of his classroom. But the movie diffuses the tension inherent to the ghetto-high-school-in-peril genre with lessons on the imperfect subjunctive. Miraculously the audience does not stampede the box office for a refund, and instead settles into the rhythms of this affecting film.
Here is the rare Issue movie that doesn’t feel like a public service announcement. To use a venerable maxim of high school writing classes it shows rather than tells. And what it shows is a mélange of diverse adolescent faces united only by their blemishes. These are teenagers rarely seen in American movies outside of Gus Van Sant’s inter-Oscar bait experimental offerings. The kids are roundly excellent, but sisters-in-sass Esmeralda (Esmerelda Quertani) and Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) stand out alongside sullen Souleyman (Frank Keita), shy Louise (Louise Grinberg) and ambitious Nassim (Nassim Amrabt). These descriptors sound reductive but The Class eschews the nerd-jock-princess-goth paradigms that have defined the best and worst high school movies since John Hughes established the template. Its characters are not two-dimensional ambassadors of their racial or ethnic backgrounds either, a pitfall of the multiculti genre. The students are empathetic because they cannot be distilled to a single ingredient. Insolent and indifferent one moment and reverentially engaged the next, The Class’ teens prove that an inconsistent character (particularly one suffering daily trig quizzes) is not necessarily a weak one.
The most compelling scenes avoid schmaltz but still open tear ducts. A boy named Carl reads an essay on his likes (“helping my mom around the house”) and dislikes (“visiting my brother in jail”). An intelligent student’s parents beam when Francois praises their son despite a limited understanding of the French he speaks. Inarticulate Souleyman excels at a photo collage of his reticent mother, earning a rare commendation from Francois that leaves him in gleeful disbelief. Heartrending, perceptive scenes make The Class an anomaly: too grounded in reality too feel like typical entertainment and too emotionally potent to register as a documentary.
If The Class makes one slight stumble it’s in the glacial exposition of the second hour’s dramatic conflict. Maybe the movie needed the sort of structure and suspense this dilemma provides (it involves a student’s potential expulsion) but it does not entirely jive with the first half’s freeform pleasures.
While Cantet's import is about messy, xenophobic modern-day France, its take on education and growing up will resonate with most viewers. And its optimistic theme of immigrant ambition overcoming the odds is uniquely American.