Laurent Cantet's two-hour film covers one school year at a junior high in a tough Paris neighborhood, focusing on one teacher and his class of 13-year-olds. The youngish teacher -- François Marin (François Bégaudeau) -- is dedicated, spirited and open to less-conventional instruction techniques; his students are a mixed batch in background, ethnicity, enthusiasm and equanimity.
The Class plays like a documentary, though in fact it's a meticulously constructed hybrid of fiction and fact. The characters, all non-actors, essentially play themselves, including Bégaudeau, whose book about teaching inspired the film. Through ongoing workshops, Cantet, Bégaudeau and the students hashed out the film's framework, scenarios and key dialogue exchanges. Still, much of the film retains a loose, you-are-there feel.
Marin teaches French, and much of The Class is about language. Many of the story's conflicts spring from the inability to communicate effectively, and the frustrations that arise when a shared language doesn't necessarily guarantee a shared understanding. When using words to express themselves, the kids struggle -- and excel -- depending. For these streetwise children of immigrants, language is a potent component of cultural identity. They object to a complicated subjunctive construction, declaring it snooty and old-fashioned (and thus, pointless to them), yet draw easily from hybridized hip-hop slang.
It's hard to pinpoint what makes The Class so engaging: not much happens, and there are no easy-grab characters to root for. In some respects, the study is of a larger organism -- the class, or students and teacher within a larger authoritative construct. It's a dynamic environment where all participants are endlessly regrouping, learning and adapting, though not always for the best. It's an imperfect task for all, conveying and extracting knowledge out of chaos. (One girl quietly confesses that what she learned was that she had learned nothing; it's a heartbreaking admission, but still a legitimate experience.)
The Class is certainly an antidote to all those inspirational teacher-in-the-hood films. It's not that you won't quietly root for Marin or his frustrating kids, but there's no glossy overlay, no transcendental breakthrough moment and no uplifting ending. When summer comes, there's just the knowledge that everybody has made it through another year, hopefully improved. Because, outside of Hollywood, that's how it goes -- and this study of that process is illuminating. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., March 13. Regent Square (AH) [3 out of 4 stars]