Inspirational-teacher movies tend to stick to such a predictable, hidebound template that The Class, a French film that won the top prize at Cannes in 2008 and was among this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees, may initially puzzle you. Sure, you’ve got your mildly unconventional, tough-but-warm instructor (Bégaudeau) and the usual multicultural gaggle of unruly but basically good kids, with both sides prepared for a cage match between education and discipline. And yet, as one mildly contentious lesson follows another without major incident, and no snooty administrator shows up to demand that our heroic prof stick to the preferred syllabus, and the film continually declines to cut away from the classroom to depict budding romances or gang rivalries, you start to wonder whether you’re watching a totally shapeless fictional narrative or an unusually streamlined documentary. (In truth, The Class straddles the line, its screenplay having been developed from extensive improvisations; Bégaudeau is a real-life teacher, and the kids are playing heightened versions of themselves.) Will this film really concentrate on the process of pedagogy to the exclusion of everything else?
Pretty much, yeah—and, ironically, it’s when the semblance of a plot finally emerges that things start to go a bit south. Director Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) observes the teacher-student dynamic with such probing patience that you can’t help but get emotionally involved in the struggle, even when entire lengthy scenes are devoted to the contemporary relevance of the imperfect subjunctive tense. (Imagine an American version of Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver that spent a good 10 or 12 minutes arguing the pros and cons of “who” vs. “whom.”) Even as I was admiring The Class’ rigor and intelligence, though, I confess that I also found myself wishing that something maybe just a little bit extra-scholastic might happen. But when one troublemaker, Souleymane (Keïta), goes too far and gets threatened with expulsion in the film’s second half, his sudden prominence destabilizes the shrewdly balanced experiment that Cantet and his ensemble have worked so hard to fashion. However uncommonly subdued this heroic-teacher drama, it eventually fits the genre and its limitations quite snugly.