Rent it now: a gem about school life

lazharThe French-Canadian drama “Monsieur Lazhar” was one of the four foreign language films that lost to “A Separation” in the Oscar race in 2012, but it’s a beautiful little picture about students and teachers coping with a school tragedy.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is the new teacher at a Montreal elementary school that was devastated by the suicide of one of its teachers.

The disturbed woman hanged herself in one of the classrooms where she was first discovered by a young student — Simon (Emilien Neron) — and then his classmate, Alice (Sophie Nelisse).

We see the usual bureaucratic reaction to such an event. Psychologists sent in to calm the kids, administrators wondering if they are in any way at fault (i.e. covering their asses).

Writer-director Philippe Falardeau shows great sensitivity toward the way children process grief and how supposedly caring adults would just as soon not deal with death in a direct manner with youngsters who are burning to talk about what really happened.

Lazhar is an outsider on more than one level — he’s an Algerian hoping for Canadian citizenship after a terrorist incident wiped out his family — and the fact that he is dealing with his own grief allows Lazhar to respond to the students in an honest way that scares the other teachers.

“Monsieur Lazhar” deals with tough emotional material, but Falardeau presents it in a deft and engaging manner. There are few “big” scenes here, just perfectly realized little moments that add up to a very powerful experience.

Falardeau does an amazing job with the children in the cast, especially Neron and Nelisse, who pull off some of the toughest moments in the story.