There are several ways to manage a group of giddy, unruly 14-year-olds. Franois (Franois Bégaudeau) never really finds one. As the Parisian schoolteacher tries to teach his class the satisfactions of poetic meter and Anne Frank's diary, the room is always on the verge of chaos - that is, when it's not in actual chaos.
Franois' classroom is the claustrophobic setting for the moving, Oscar-nominated film The Class, which was co-written by Bégaudeau and based on his novel. The film is lightly comic but mostly grueling, and it resembles noble-educator movies like Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver. It's more interesting than those, though. For one thing, Franois isn't precisely noble. He can be as petty as his students, as skillful at hurling sarcasm and preying on insecurities. And he's supposed to be the grownup.
Also distinguishing The Class is its focus on a changing France. Many of Franois' students are from immigrant families (Moroccan, Ivorian, Chinese), and they face challenges more perilous than homework, like the threat of Mom being deported. When it comes to his students' backgrounds, Franois can be tone deaf. In one potent exchange, he uses the name Bill in a grammar lesson. "Why do you always use whitey names?" one student demands. "What about Ahmet?" It's a very good question.
The youths who play Franois' students turn in searing performances - especially Esmerelda Ouertani, whose character, also named Esmerelda, is bright, but wary and lippy. Then there is Franck Keita as Souleymane, a sullen Malian kid who seems destined to flunk. Franois reaches out to him in touching ways - praising his cellphone photography, for instance. But after Souleymane makes a big mistake, his exhausted teachers have a wrenching discussion that's all too familiar from the agonies of big-city schools in the U.S.: When kids mess up, have they failed, or has school failed them?
The Class provides a pretty stark answer to that question in a heartbreaking scene with Souleymane's mother. The educators patiently, compassionately explain to her, in French, why Souleymane is in trouble. The problem is that Souleymane's mother doesn't speak French.