- User Rating: Very Good
Bang For The Buck
Pros:Exceptional performances. Intersting subject matter.
Cons:Too many unresolved subplots. Plots lack cohesion.
The Bottom Line: Monsieur Lazhar is a decent film based on tragic circumstances. However, the film fails to link the storylines together into a cohesive, complete story. Outstanding performances saved this film.
Monsieur Lazhar was among the five finalists for the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the subject matter, I went into this film with high expectations. While I was not totally disappointed, this film fell short of my expectations. It was superior to Footnote, which I did not find as captivating as some of my friends, but this film was not in the same league with A Separation (which won this year), Bullhead and In Darkness. This category for the Academy Awards was not as deep as it have been in recent years, but there are some decent films to be found here.
It is impossible to discuss this film without minor spoilers. I will discuss the plot briefly in the next two paragraphs. You can skip past them if you want to avoid a discussion on the actual plot, although I will not get too heavy into the details…
Monsieur Lazhar tackles a difficult topic. The film starts off with a strong impact as a young student collects milk for his class only to arrive at a locked classroom. As he peers through the glass, he is met with a shocking sight. He spots his teacher hanging from a water main on the far side of his classroom. The rest of the film derives from this initial scene, which sets the stage for deep, emotionally charged, dramatic elements. The boy alerts other teachers and the rest of the students are ushered outside. One other child happens to witness her deceased teacher before a teacher intercedes. The unfortunate situation creates two issues…the emotional trauma of the students and the need for a replacement teacher. The latter issue is resolved in the person of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) who shows up at the school to apply for the job.
Lazhar describes himself to his new principal as an immigrant from Algeria (he is actually a refuge). He describes himself as an elementary school teacher, although his work history is specious until later in the story. Lazhar is hired and finds he connects with the students, although his approach to teaching is a bit more formal than they are used to. In the process, we observed the students as they deal work with a counselor to deal with their emotions. As the students bond with their new teacher, a new challenge surfaces from parents who are unhappy with Lazhar’s non-traditional teaching methods. The film takes an unpredictable turn, leaving more matters unresolved than answered.
Monsieur Lazhar began with an exceptional premise but then failed to pull together a coherent, moving story. What could have been an intriguing and warm tale of overcoming grief and challenges became a somewhat sterile examination of characters that were never fully developed. We learn quite a bit about Lazhar, but never really see him following through on excellent opportunities to interact. We have a child with headaches (Boris, played by Louis-David Leblanc) who actually appears to suffer from malnutrition. But the topic is never examined. Simon (Emilien Neron) is a central character who provides some emotional range but lacks development in other areas. Alice (Sophie Nelisse) is the bright spot in this film, giving us a character whose troubles seethe beneath the surface. Yet even her character is left unresolved in the end. There are a host of other characters whose sole purpose seems to be to fill out the “dance card” with cardboard cutouts. My biggest issue with this film was the failure to connect the individual parts. We get snippets of character development that are left dangling without resolution or a meaningful connection to the underlying story. They are mere details that lack substance. This was frustrating for me. What appeared to be potential storylines ended up as dead-end streets. The end result is an emotional subject that never connects with the audience, leaving us as casual observers rather than participants. This failure was monumental to me. It ruined a potentially phenomenal story.
If there was a redeeming quality to Monsieur Lazhar it would definitely be the performance of Nelisse. I was struck by her performance, which added incredible depth to her character. She reminded me of a young Drew Barrymore, with a composure and delivery that belies her age. It resulted in a combination of maturity and innocence that we rarely witness. This child has a bright future in front of her. I enjoyed Fellag’s performance, as well. His character was somewhat unremarkable, which can often be harder to portray than a quirkier character. His measured delivery added credibility to his character. The other major player, Neron, also handled his duties with professionalism. While the young man was stuck in the shadow of Nelisse’s incredible performance, I enjoyed the balance he brought to the screen. The other characters were weak enough that none of the performances stood out to me. But the acting made this film far more enjoyable than it otherwise may have been. What this story lacked in coherence it made up for in performances.
Monsieur Lazhar was tagged with a PG-13 from the MPAA. This is most certainly tied primarily to the opening scene and possibly the subject matter as a whole. The film discusses the topics of death, violence and suicide. Lazhar’s family members were killed following arson, but there is discussion of his daughter jumping to her death to escape the flames. The film includes some elements of strong language, but no “F-Bombs.” It may have earned a PG rating if the subject matter were not as dark. This film is not really questionable, since the subject matter is contextual. However, the dark elements may cause nightmares or prompt difficult questions from younger viewers. I would recommend an audience ten and older, depending on their maturity.
I am probably being harder on Monsieur Lazhar than I should be. The film had plenty of redeeming qualities. The greatest of which were the performances. I thoroughly enjoyed the acting and found the performances to elevate the characters where the writing failed. It is disappointing when a film like this takes on a difficult topic and then fails to adequately bind the storylines into a coherent, moving story. I found myself watching from an almost sterile perspective due to an inability to connect with the action. The film is a decent story with excellent acting but too many loose ends. Three stars.
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Movie Mood: Serious Movie
Film Completeness: Looked complete to me.
Worst Part of this Film: Script