After a sixth-grade teacher hangs herself in the classroom, a substitute teacher is hastily arranged for this Montreal public school. The titular Monsieur Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant who agrees to take on the understandably troubled class. He has a warm way with the children, despite some differences in method (he reads to the grumbling children from Balzac). And unlike the terrified school administration, Lazhar believes the children need to be open about their confusion and grief, even as he never reveals his own unspeakable losses.
Director Philippe Falardeau adapted the film from Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play, and the work occasionally betrays its origins, rarely leaving the school grounds. Yet the forays "beyond" that Falardeau adds are illuminating, depicting Lazhar's loneliness, his awkward fit into an otherwise accommodating new culture and his just-there façade that masks his own pain. It's a low-key, humanistic film, firmly anchored by Mohamed Fellag as Lazhar, and a pair of expressive child actors who portray the two students who witnessed the suicide. But don't expect the buoying feel-goodness of Hollywood troubled-school films: Lazhar is sweet and sad; unfolds over a few months, with just the barest of plot points; and resolves as quietly as it begins, but not without great change. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., May 11, Manor (AL HOFF)