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Of principals and principles
French schoolhouse drama motivates and devastates

The Class

Studio:Sony Pictures Classics
Director:Laurent Cantet
Cast:Francois Begaudeau
Our Rating:

You probably went to Francoise Dolto Junior High. The students are all clicking tongues, rolling eyes and tapping feet; the teachers are made up of chalk dust and ground molars. They donít look like Michelle Pfeiffer, and they donít act like Edward James Olmos. The only thing anyone has in common is the reprieve offered by the ringing bell.

For anyone who spends one hour a day with kids like these, let alone five days a week, 30-something weeks a year, bad behavior is to be expected and best intentions are rare at best. Itís all the more remarkable that director Laurent Cantet (Heading South) has harnessed that inherent drama into 128 minutes of The Class, which fly by considerably faster than the same length of time spent with the Mac guy and Rachel from Friends.

Between a win at last yearís Cannes Film Festival and a nomination at this yearís Academy Awards, he must be doing something right Ė namely, keeping it real.

François Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a teacher at Francoise Dolto whose documented school year is not unlike that of Bégaudeauís 2006 novel Between the Walls, an autobiographical tale of the banalities and challenges of the average Parisian school year. Some students simply wonít get it, some teachers simply wonít get out without caving in to the daily frustration, and then itís time to meet the new class, same as the old class.

The students, naturally, are no more professional than their instructors. Theyíre played by actual students at Francoise Dolto who were encouraged by Cantet to improvise and otherwise form their own characters.

In the tidiest pitch-speak, itís the Dardennes do Degrassi, a proudly meandering and convincingly intimate glimpse at the epic battle waged against apathy in school systems the world over. When the brats wield slang loudly and proudly, Mr. Marin offers up synonyms as an alternative, and when that doesnít work, he gently but deftly turns their own sarcasm and humiliation tactics against them. When any of them misbehave Ė Mr. Marin included Ė there are consequences to bear.

Although the film doesnít pander to audiences with a conventional climax (they donít win a big game or the science fair) a reckoning does come, as conflicts between Marin and his students and concerns from his superiors and the parents flare up. Leave it to the French teacher to let loose upon his multicultural microcosm the follies and fallout of miscommunication, after struggling so hard to instill social responsibility in their stubborn little brains.

Not all hope is lost, though. Some students actually absorb some knowledge against the odds, even the belligerent ones. Bégaudeauís swift wit and utter dedication craft a tableau credible and compelling enough for Cantetís even swifter camera crew to capture so that the feel-good moments uplift and the inevitable disappointments ring terribly true.

While everyone shuffles off for their final recess, Cantet lets the film linger on the empty, disheveled rows of desks left behind.

In doing so, he makes a simple yet loud statement as the cheers fade in the distance: Itís not the place, but rather the people who make the difference between mere schooling and a true education.

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