“The Class”
At the Michigan
Sony

Courtesy of Sony

4 out of 5 stars

The line between truth and fiction is expertly manipulated in “The Class,” a French docudrama that won the Golden Palm at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film is about the teacher of an inner-city middle school in Paris and his students, who hail from several different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Director Laurent Cantet (“Heading South”) achieves an incredible sense of realism for a scripted film, thanks to constant improvisation, use of non-professional actors and fly-on-a-wall filmmaking techniques. “The Class” will transport even the most jaded viewers back to the trials and turmoil of their middle school years.

The source material for the film is a 2006 semi-autobiographical novel by former teacher François Bégaudeau. Bégaudeau co-wrote the screenplay and stars as the teacher in “The Class” who is also named François.

His students are played by the real-life students at the school where the movie was filmed. The students gave up five weeks of their summer vacation to sit in a cramped classroom and be filmed yelling at their “teacher.” When kids are sacrificing their vacations in the name of higher art, something magical must be at work.

The students’ parents in the film, who make brief appearances during parent-teacher conferences, also play themselves. Their scenes highlight ever-present cultural borders between teacher and parent — when François attempts to tell one mother about her boy’s troublemaking habits, he is distraught to find she doesn’t speak French.

For its first half, “The Class” refuses to develop a coherent storyline, instead dealing frankly with the many issues that present themselves in the educational system. In focusing on little details like the effort it takes François to quiet his students at the start of class every day, “The Class” further cements its status as a refreshingly realistic tale about the educational system. There are no angel-like Robin Williams or Edward James Olmos types barreling in with their amazing teaching abilities to sweep the students off their feet. Here the kids are often uncooperative and unruly, and the school proves itself many times to be ill-equipped for dealing with them.

Eventually a story emerges around Souleymane (newcomer Franck Keita), a loudmouth Malian student who is threatened with expulsion after a heated exchange of insults in the classroom spirals out of control. What complicates matters is that François is not a complete bystander in the situation; there is a possibility that the frank and unorthodox methods he uses to speak to his students caused him to overstep his boundaries.

The viewer is ultimately left to judge what the proper course of action should have been, and the decision is not an easy one. Souleymane’s story is an embodiment of the disconnect between students’ personal lives and their teachers’ strike-hard-and-fast disciplinary philosophy. And there are many unanswered questions about what would have been the best way to approach Souleymane’s situation.

The original French title of “The Class” — and the title of the novel from which it is based — is “Entre Les Murs,” which translates to “Between the Walls.” It’s a fitting description, as the vast majority of the film takes place within the walls of François’s classroom. The cramped space provides a revealing look at how students interpret the world. In one instance, a black girl rightfully chastises François for only using “white” names during his grammar lessons; in another, a discussion of soccer teams devolves into a flurry of racial stereotyping.

Despite all the drama, by the end of the school year many students have learned from François and from each other. “The Class” is thankfully just optimistic enough to suggest that most of them have bright futures in their sights.

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