Oh high school, that tumultuous, awkward, drama filled time that you don’t want to remember, but you can’t seem to forget. If you think it’s any better in, say France, you better think again.
In “The Class,” the winner of the coveted Palme D’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, ideals, attitudes and cultures collide, all within the confines of the classroom. Based on Francois Bégaudeau’s book, Entre Les Murs (Between the Walls), “The Class” chronicles the lives and times of a group of teenagers from a struggling French neighborhood as they interact with their open and honest teacher (Bégaudeau), each other and their families. In a poignant and moving exploration of racism, sexism, classicism, angst and themselves, this 2-hour long narrative conversation has ups and downs, turns and spirals that are not to be missed.
This is not your typical film about high school where the teacher and the student are in a struggle for power ala “The Breakfast Club,” on the contrary, the authority figure is refreshing, and at times almost too good to be true. Take for instance, when Soulemayne, an outspoken member of the class asks Francois about his sexual orientation. The consequences that would follow such a question are imaginable, however Francois never falters. He doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t get angry, nor does he buckle under pressure. This type of open discourse and dialogue between teacher and student has perhaps never before been seen. Like his students, Francois is trying to deal with the world’s problems and as such, never becomes better than them, or an outsider who doesn’t understand, he almost becomes one of them, a student, albeit much wiser and older, learning life lessons from his students as he is teaching them.
At times the film becomes so raw and real, you wonder if you’re watching a documentary or actors playing their parts. The selection process of the students in the film is quite an interesting one to note as are the characters they represent.
There’s Khoumba, the opinionated and tough student who criticizes Francois’s use of the name “Bill” in an example during a language lesson, and Soulemayne (Franck Keïta), the archetypal tough guy with a sensitive side who is also a serious trouble maker, Wei (Wei Huang), the soft-spoken and smart Chinese student who is still struggling to adjust to French language and life, Arthur, the shy “goth” of the class who says people dress the way he does because they feel sad on the inside and Sandra (Esméralda Ouertani), the strong, independent and talkative one of the bunch, who is smarter than Francois might perceive.
In a poignant scene, Francois asks the class to write self-portraits detailed who they are and what they believe. This ultimately becomes a sort of turning point in the film, as most of the class takes it as an opportunity to actually have their voices heard. Through their self-portraits, you feel their ideas, thoughts, hopes and dreams and perhaps the obstacles they surely face in their lives.
Francois’s colleagues also must deal with the obstacles in not only teaching a group of teenagers with school as their lowest priority, but students who are truly a handful. “The Class” highlights the struggles teachers face in making the right decisions and managing to maintain composure and respect when dealing with a group of rebellious and rowdy teenagers.
Though there are separate lines drawn between the role of the teacher and student, Francois’ approach blurs those lines and bridges them, it’s the only way he feels perhaps, that he might understand his students better. The lines, however, at times, are crossed and result in emotional scenes that leave you entrapped in the lives of those involved.
Perhaps what makes “The Class” so captivating is its simplicity. Make no mistake, there is no fancy film making involved, no flashbacks, or musical backdrops, scenery or confusing plots that make you think twice. The tools you need to view this film are ones you already have: a high school experience and hopefully some recollection of it. Whether you’re from the United States or Europe, the struggles, the fears and conflicts largely remain the same.
Directed by Laurent Cantet; based on the novel “Entre les Murs” by Francois Bégaudeau; directors of photography, Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol and Georgi Lazarevski; edited by Robin Campillo and Stéphanie Léger; produced by Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier and Simon Arnal. Rated PG-13 for language. French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours and 8 minutes.