Movies about grief tend to be heavy lifting. Monsieur Lazhar is so light and delicate, you often forget what the story is really about — until writer-director Philippe Falardeau reminds you with a wallop. The film opens at an elementary school in Quebec, where two fifth-graders — Simon (Emilien Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nelisse) — make a startling discovery: Their teacher has committed suicide by hanging in their classroom.
Without lingering on the traumatic sight, the movie quickly moves forward. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a recent émigré from Algeria, becomes the children’s new teacher. The kids seem to have no interest in discussing the tragedy, so Lazhar sets about to making the classroom his own. He rearranges their desks; he gets families with the various personalities of his students and he learns to adjust his lessons to their speed (he tries Balzac on them, which proves too difficult).
The first half of Monsieur Lazhar is deliberately paced and oh-so-carefully constructed: Lazhar seems happy and animated in the classroom, but there’s a nagging aura of melancholy around him. Simon and Alice seem to have gotten over the traumatic shock they experienced, although their conversations together when they’re away from the other kids suggest otherwise.
Falardeau focuses on the ordinary details of a teacher’s workday and the rules of the Quebec school district Lazhar must learn. For a while, the film seems to have no plot or direction whatsoever. But all the seemingly unmemorable things that the movie has been dwelling on — the photograph Simon shows Alice that infuriates her or the principal’s careful explanation of why teachers may never hit or touch students — gradually coalesce into a heart-rending climax.
Monsieur Lazhar has several moments that catch you completely off-guard and floor you, such as Alice’s oral report to the class about her school, which starts out nice and pleasant until she starts to talk about her dead teacher. But the movie reaches its most searing intensity with Simon, a bright boy who has been harboring a heavy secret, until he finally can’t carry the weight anymore. He melts down — and you will, too — but Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t send you home depressed. Instead, the film leaves you hopeful, and even exhilarated, that even the most painful wounds can sometimes heal.
Cast: Mohamed Fellag, Emilien Neron, Sophie Nelisse, Danielle Proulx.
Writer-director: Philippe Falardeau.
Producer: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Strong adult themes. Opens Friday April 13 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Arts Cinema.