Monsieur Lazhar is one of those rare films that grabs you from its opening moments and doesn’t let you go, no matter how you feel about what you’re seeing on screen. It tells the story of a man who comes into a school in Quebec, Canada, as replacement for another teacher who has passed away and left the imprint of her death on both her class and the school where she taught.
Monsieur Lazhar is a deeply moving and sad film about the effect that teachers can have on children. Bashir Lazhar is one of those teachers who seeks to inspire and encourage the children. The children initially and predictably hate him because of his Algerian background and the fact that he cannot, in their minds, replace the teacher they loved. This film lives in reality. Nothing in it feels fake or contrived, and the children will break your heart with their constant, genuine reactions to the pain they feel deep inside. Lazhar’s life is further complicated because he may not be granted permanent asylum in Canada, which is what he desperately needs so that he can escape the war torn area of Algeria where he used to live.
The performances from the cast really boil down to three very gifted actors. Sophie Nélisse who plays the main female student, Alice L’Écuyer, in Monsieur Lazhar’s classroom is an absolutely magnetic presence on screen despite being about 11 years old at the time she made this film. Alice forms a bond with Lazhar because she barely gets an opportunity to see and spend time with her mom (a flight attendant) for most of the film. Alice’s moments in the film show her maturity and her sadness at not being cared for.
Sophie Nélisse’s acting talent is equaled by newcomer Émilien Néron, who plays Simon (Alice’s friend). Néron has the thankless task of portraying a character who is constantly blamed for anger issues that he cannot control. Simon also blames himself for the death of his teacher, which causes him an enormous amount of stress — a stress that he eventually crumbles under, which is illustrated in the film’s standout scene.
Monsieur Lazhar simply asks the question: how do people deal with the loss of someone important in their lives? The film offers no easy answers to this question and instead offers up the idea that death is never supposed to make sense. I would also add that because death doesn’t make sense, its profound and lasting impact will not make sense to us either. The fact that it means something at all shows us that people matter to us.
And Monsieur Lazhar is a film that matters to me and despite its painful subject matter I am more than happy that it made me feel something. I would recommend this film to anyone, as its plot is ageless and its characters manage to demonstrate a form of humanity that I have not seen in film since viewing A Separation at Ebertfest 2012.