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No dead poets, just grit and heart


February 10, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

It's no secret that the L.A. public school system is pretty much a disaster -- mismanaged, overcrowded, underfunded, crippled by a bloated bureaucracy, lacking in leadership and soon to be further undermined by another round of budget cuts.

Of course, I could say pretty much the same thing about most public schools around the country. It's something of a national scandal in an era of globalization that we put so little energy and money into providing a worthy public education for our children.

It's such a sad, depressing story that, for years, Hollywood has refused to acknowledge it. If you look at the movies made in the last few decades about our schools, they are -- with rare exceptions -- uplifting dramas and escapist fantasies that have little to do with the grim realities of our crumbling school system.

Required to have a third act that reassures audiences that hope springs eternal, they are packed with idealistic teachers, feel-good nostrums and kids whose exterior brashness disguises a sweet-natured soul. This holds true from "Blackboard Jungle" through "Dead Poets Society," "Stand and Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds."

That's what makes "The Class," a terrific, tough-minded film from Laurent Cantet that is a leading contender for the foreign-language film Oscar, such a revelation. A raucous, wholly unsentimental look at a class of largely immigrant middle schoolers in a gritty Parisian neighborhood, using real kids and a real teacher in the leading roles, it offers such a grimly realistic portrait of classroom chaos that many critics -- while giving it rave reviews -- have been confused about whether to call it fiction, documentary or docudrama.

Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker wasn't sure what to make of "The Class" himself when he first saw the picture at a market screening last year in Cannes.

"I remember walking out, blown away, for two different reasons," Barker recalls. "First off, I'd seen so many movies about teacher-student relationships in the classrooms, but I'd never seen anything as blunt and volatile and full of ricocheting energy. Secondly, after seeing the teacher in the film, I thought, 'Who is this guy? He's going to be the new French movie star. He has the charisma of a movie star and the focus of a great actor.' And then it turns out that he's playing himself! He's a real teacher who wrote the book that the movie was based on."

One of the first things Barker did when he brought the film to America was to screen it for Joel Klein, an old friend who is the New York City schools chancellor. "He adored it," Barker says. "He recognized right away that 'The Class' was about the challenges every school system in America has in trying to deal with multiculturalism."

So why does "The Class" offer so much more of a compelling portrait of the tumult of today's school system than Hollywood films?

First, it was made in a country that holds education and academia in far higher esteem than in America. Cantet's film was also made independently, so the filmmaker wasn't barraged with studio notes, asking him to insert inspirational moments or soften the insolence and anger of some of the key students.

There's no three-act structure, no obstacles to overcome, simply the drama inherent in a situation that pits a doggedly focused teacher against a scrum of embattled teenagers, most from immigrant families, who take it as a challenge to see if they can provoke confrontation and undermine the teacher's authority.

Instead of hiring a professional screenwriter to smooth over the rough edges, Cantet went to Francois Begaudeau, who'd written a book documenting a year from his life as a classroom teacher. The men didn't just write the film together; they spent a year in a real Parisian school, running weekly workshops, hanging out with roughly 50 students, doing improvisations, then grafting some of the kids' stories into the film.

Most of the students who participated ended up playing the characters we see and using their real first names. As the teacher in the film, Begaudeau plays Francois Marin.

The film itself is shot so much like a documentary that everyone appears confused about how much was scripted and how much was improvised. A number of critics, including Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, have described the film as unscripted. Sony's Barker insists it was totally scripted, with the students improvising in certain situations.

What especially hits home is the film's barbed, evocative portrayal of its protagonists. The film's "star" student (perhaps a better term would be "antihero") is Esmeralda, a bright but incorrigible gadfly who takes pleasure in provoking confrontation and undermining Marin's authority.

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