When François Bégaudeau, the co-writer and star of Laurent Cantet's The Class, strides confidently into an ethnically mixed middle-school classroom–where he'll spend most of the film's 128 minutes–audiences can be forgiven for expecting him to work miracles. The movies have trained us to believe that an inspirational teacher can turn inner-city thugs into rapping scholars and disaffected private-school kids into barbaric yawpers, so surely a man of Bégaudeau's talents can stir up this melting pot, no? Well, not exactly. The beauty of The Class is that it puts the lie to the one-teacher-can-make-a-difference myth propagated by so many other films; Bégaudeau may well have an impact on his students, but he and the film have the wisdom to understand that some kids can't be reached, and teachers often find that cultural or bureaucratic conditions leave their hands tied.
Shot with a skeleton crew, including three digital cameras, over the course of a school year–students were cast from auditions, and the classroom sessions were like improvisatory workshops–The Class is based on Bégaudeau's semi-autographical book Entre Les Murs (Between The Walls). He plays himself convincingly. The 12-to-13-year-old students were never given scripts, but clearly they must have bonded (and repelled) over such a long period of time together, and Bégaudeau provokes them into some lively, revealing discussion. Mini-melodramas emerge about troubled students, most notably an altercation involving a hotheaded, displaced African boy (Franck Keïta), with consequences for both student and teacher. Mainly, Cantet concerns himself with capturing the shifting classroom dynamics and Bégaudeau's seasoned (if not always noble) way of working them to his advantage.
Four films into his career, Cantet has established himself as a steady chronicler of social issues, from working-class (Human Resources) and white-collar (Time Out) distress to the arrogance and entitlement of Western elites in Third World countries (Heading South). That last effort found him shading too far into lefty didacticism, but The Class commits itself so fully to its semi-documentary style that there's no space for editorializing. With an eye to Paris' turbulent multiracial suburbs, the film simply lays out the difficulties not only in education, but also with forging any kind of unified French identity. These are problems too big for one man, even a mediator as self-possessed and reasonable as Bégaudeau, and Cantet does well not to narrow The Class to a point.