By Willie Krischke — August 16, 2009
“The Class” reconvinces me of something I’ve thought for a while now — that middle school teachers, good ones at least, are both A)saints, B)brilliantly talented, and C)criminally underpaid. I don’t think there’s a harder, more confusing age in our lives than adolescence, and these people surround themselves with adolescents. I couldn’t do it. Seems like most middle school teachers can’t really do it, either. I’m glad some can, and do.
“The Class” stars Francois Begaudeau, and is based on his own biography, so he knows the material in and out. It never stops feeling like an ear-to-the-ground documentary, though it isn’t. This is because director Laurent Cantet keeps things real; most of the scenes are improvised, and surely real tensions and honest debates arose amongst this real group of adolescents, actors though they may be. There’s surly Souleymane, one of many students of African descent, who refuses to complete his assignments and “forgets” his textbook almost every day. And insolent Esmeralda, who thinks she’s smarter than her teacher; there’s no doubt she’s intelligent, but can he get her to use that in cooperation with him instead of against him?
Begaudeau, the teacher, is resourceful, flawed, impetuous, and above all, committed to his students. They spend as much time discussing family and love and identity as they do parsing French verbs or deciding if Anne Frank is worth reading. I was amazed and impressed as I watched him work; constantly making on-the-go decisions about when to take control of the classroom, when to let it loose a little, when to pursue a conversational tangent and when to snap the students back to task. This is a hard job. He must be exhausted at the end of the day.
“The Class” is not the least bit worried about plot; and this impressive, committed teacher doesn’t manage to turn his poor, underclass kids into geniuses and model citizens, as happens in most Teacher Movies. Instead, we are glued to the screen, watching true interactions between real characters in a stimulating setting. What more could you ask for in a movie?