‘The Class’: Who’s learning?

December 11, 2008

“The Class” is one of those films that people go see because critics – not this critic, but critics – tell them they should.

And afterwards, they say, “What’s so special about that movie?”

In the case of “The Class,” winner of the the top prize at Cannes this year, opening night whoopdedoo at the New York Film Festival, the answer is: not a lot.

It’s competent. It’s skillfully made. It has the feel of real life to it. And you walk out thinking: “To Sir With Love” circa the 21st century, minus the melodrama. Meh.

As a slice of life, “The Class” doesn’t look at a life that I’d want a slice of. It follows a middle-school teacher at an inner-city school in Paris from the start of the school year to the end. He finds students he can inspire, others he thinks he can help, others who are hopeless cases or perpetually disruptive. Middle school is hell; and this is news because …?

As played by Francois Begaudeau, M. Marin is a veteran who knows how to engage, doesn’t take any backtalk and can find ways to link the curriculum to the students’ lives. He hasn’t given up (though he seems to want to, at times – but then who wouldn’t?).

He gets drawn into an argument with a student at one point and tells her to stop acting like a “skank.” He means one thing; the students hear something else. It’s the equivalent of telling someone to stop acting stupid – and having them say, “Don’t call me stupid.” There’s no winning that argument.

The film is based on a book Begaudeau wrote about his own experiences as a teacher, with him playing a version of himself. He doesn’t let himself off the hook, capturing the loss of patience that threatens each of his colleagues in that situation.

But who will want to see this film? Not teachers, who live it everyday. Not students, who won’t want to see themselves portrayed as woefully, willfully ignorant. Not parents, who don’t want to know just how bad it’s become at the school.

Unfortunately for the releasing company, critics don’t pay for their tickets. But they comprise the film’s natural audience.

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