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By Matthew Sorrento | February 25, 2009

It’s hard not to sense an agenda in this film right away. “The Class” depicts realism as if the style were a new invention, its presenters gentle with their worthy discovery. Not that the film presents raw, grainy “truth-inducing” footage: the camerawork is glossy enough to portray a polished verite style. We’re asked to come in and check out the goings-on of a classroom, one that – you’ve guessed it – is filled with troubled youths.

Hence, this French classroom has plenty to which a stateside movie audience can relate. We are well versed in the Christ-figure teacher film, in which a professional (often from another profession, and frequently descending from the suburbs) comes to save youths and appease liberal strains in the multiplex. This template rolls along like a mushy boxing film, a self-righteous riff leading to the savior’s triumph. As rough-hewn as the students may be, any well-intentioned adult can open them up like grimy oysters in this movie tradition. Just recite some bits from a motivational text and you’ll redirect tidal waves.

Hence, for American moviegoers, “The Class” pulls quite a ruse over our heads. The film was wise enough to show inner-city* education exactly how it is. I don’t mean to detract from the film’s merits, since achieving such is no minor feat. Director Laurent Cantet assembles a cast of teens who know how to be just that – i.e., carefree, immature, irritating, and often thorns-in-the-side of their teacher. Whenever their prof, François Marin (screenwriter François Bégaudeau, who adapted his book), reaches out to them – and to this group, he’s really out on a limb – they strike back, arguing with him or challenging his instruction. One student even feels comfortable enough to ask him if he’s a homosexual – and Marin meets the strike by replying, coolly, that he is not.

Though “The Class’s” point of view is original to the average Joe, it’s mundane in the real world of education. And hence, critics and viewers gush over this film, now blinded by a a reality wherever teens are taught. But for those of us who have witnessed the real thing – I did for a year before making my way to the college level – “The Class” is a one-trick show: once you spot its approach, the narrative falls into a routine. To the “insiders,” the film is as familiar as an an aerial virtual reality ride would be to an airplane pilot. (This is hardly a surprise, since Bégaudeau was himself once an insider, though now safe in a film critic’s chair.)

But I know we’re mostly bound to land, and I’d take a first-rate flying simulation anytime. So “The Class” serves as worthy social realism, with verisimilitude coming from well-directed real-life students and a former teacher. Marin is in his fourth year teaching French, which in this milieu means instructing students how to communicate while throwing in some critical thinking and literary appreciation. He does an admirable job meeting complaints and attempts to break him down, everyday realities that would send a critic of education – “Summers off? They have it easy!” – into deep stress and even tears. Marin knows that discipline, babysitting, and even crowd control are to be expected, and forges on the best he can, even with some unlikely success. When the class’s resistance makes him slip, he makes a mistake that could be fatal to his career. Of course, his insult just gives the students more ammunition to fire against him.

And this would be the dark moment that screenplay gurus like to point out in the classical Hollywood narrative. In this anti-formal narrative, the moment shows up as a causal necessity, a piece of fate unavoidable in such a situation. Another troubled youth also strikes back, though he’s already on the administration’s last strike. The school’s moral quandary that follows reconnects with our stale teacher-film template.

But thankfully, “The Class” keeps it real, by showing what a burden one of the most undervalued professions in the world may be. Our shallow accolades to these teachers are not enough – every lawyer who charges $200-plus billable hours should be forced to see this film. (Meanwhile, overpraising critics Stephanie Zacharek, David Edelstein, and Kenneth Turan should put their bloated salaries on sabbatical and spend a year in an inner-city classroom. Lord Manohla Dargis should return to her evil realm.)

The film’s stunt is to unveil a simple truth, and its reputation relies on the fact that other filmmakers have yet to make the jump. While witnessing the spot-on realism, viewers respond to their own newfound guilt: they should have realized this truth long ago.

*If you know the equivalent French term, please post it in the comments. Thanks, MS

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