Simon (Neron) and Alice (Nelisse) are among the students in the class of Martine Blanchard at a Montreal elementary school and they are at recess when Alice reminds Simon it is his turn to get milk for the class. As he hurries to complete his chore, Simon finds himself standing outside of the classroom, peering in through the window in the door and what he sees shatters his world.
Their teacher has hung herself.
He tries to find an adult to get help, but Alice also manages to get a glance at the dangling body before adults begin shooing the children back out into the yard so that any evidence of the tragedy that is unfolding can be removed before children see it.
The room has been cleansed of any reminder of Martine, and freshly painted for emphasis but the problem now is that there is no one available to teach the class. The head of the school, Mme Vailancourt (Proulx) is relieved and confused when a man comes in off of the street and offers to take on the task of teaching this class.
His name is Bachir Lahzar (Fellag) and he claims to be a permanent resident of Canada who spent almost two decades teaching in his home nation of Algieria. He read of the tragic death of Mme Blanchard and thinks he would be ideal to step into the vacancy.
Soon, he is installed as the teacher and the story of Monsieur Lazhar begins.
This is a complex, multi-layered story and director Falardeau peels the layers away slowly enough so that each nuance can be experienced, but not so slowly so that the revelations go from moving and intriguing to becoming boring.
We soon learn that something transpired between Simon and Martine, but exactly what will not be revealed until near the conclusion. We learn that Monsieur Lahzar’s story, which he does not share with his students, is not exactly the story that he told Mme Vailancourt.
He’s not a permanent resident at all, in fact he is in Canada seeking asylum from potential persecution. His wife and children are dead, and he fears being deported back to Algeria where he would share their fate. Worse yet, he is not the teacher he claimed to be, having been a government employee and restauranteur. His wife was the teacher, and it was a book that she authored, critical of the political climate in Algeria that led to his fleeing the country to make a path for his family.
The students and he struggle to get along, and his inexperience in the classroom is obvious even before the audience becomes aware of his real background. In spite of this, he is concerned and involved with his students and he knows that they are continuing to grieve their former teacher, even though the psychologist provided by the school says they are making excellent progress.
The excellent performances by the two child actors in the lead roles described above, as well as those by their classmates are a wonder to behold. The typical conflicts of children of their age are woven in and out of their strong feelings about the loss they have shared and how it has changed their lives. Fellag is very strong as the man who wants to teach his charges to be more than the children they and their parents hold them out to be.
The resolution seems a bit rushed and disappointing, which is the film’s one major flaw. But the final shot is worth waiting for.