Michelle Pfeiffer karate-chopped her way into the hearts of her inner city students in Dangerous Minds. Hilary Swank's enormous incisors beamed the white light of hope into her post race-riot Los Angeles classroom in Freedom Writers. So how does the white teacher François Bégaudeau win over his ethnically diverse class of urban hoodlums in the French flick The Class? He doesn't, and that's why The Class is the best movie about a contemporary classroom made to date.
The Class, which was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, is based on Bégaudeau's autobiography; he also co-wrote and stars in the film, which follows him through a school year with one unruly class, full of students from every background imaginable. An early scene establishes what will be a primary theme: When François uses the name "Bill" as an example in a vocab lesson, he's challenged by his students, who want to know why he doesn't use names like "Rashid" or "Ahmed," names that reflect the world that they live in. The students in François' class are more likely to identify by their country of ethnic origin than as "French"—a point made emphatically in a heated exchange about football, as the boys in the class declare their allegiances to various African teams.
François, meanwhile, is about as French as French can be. His students by turns respect and resent him, and his attitude toward them fluctuates wildly as well. In fact, one of the film's most remarkable attributes is its unwillingness to glorify François at the expense of his students: He is well meaning but arrogant, with a "just one of the gang" classroom demeanor that occasionally backfires disastrously.
The Class provides a fascinating, at times heartbreaking view of both the students' lives (in particular, first-generation immigrants coping with a new language and the expectations of their parents) and of the administration of the school itself, as François and his predominately white colleagues struggle to cope with difficult, often hostile students. The teachers are irrevocably invested in a status quo of obscure verb tenses and "proper" French—and meanwhile, when a girl in his class uses a slang term for "honky," François has to ask her to explain what she means. This scene sums up The Class' only weakness: It's not terribly subtle. A little heavy handedness can be forgiven, though, when everything else is this good.