As the head of the jury at this year's Cannes film festival, Sean Penn announced his intention to make Cannes "the opposite of the Oscars." Maybe Penn is as inspiring a leader as the gay activist he played in Milk, or maybe it was just the presence of a lot of smart people on the jury (including French-Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi and Mexican director Alfonso Cuar ó n), but the movie that won Cannes' top prize in 2008 fulfills that mandate perfectly. The Class (Sony Pictures Classics),directed by Laurent Cantet, exemplifies the anti-Oscar aesthetic: It's an unsentimental slice-of-life story, shot on digital film with a cast of unglamorous unknowns. What few moments of suspense it has to offer are almost entirely language-related: Did he really just use that word? In what sense did he mean it? And what purpose does the imperfect subjunctive serve, anyway? Yet The Class is also one of the few films this year that I'd recommend without reservations to just about anyone. If you've ever sat in a classroom (or stood in front of one), if you're interested in thinking about race, social class, language, loyalty, work—oh, let's just say life—this unassuming movie will nail you to your seat.
The Class (in French, the title translates to Between the Walls) is based on a book by that title in which François Bégaudeau, a French-language teacher in a Parisian junior high school, documented one school year in his classroom. Cantet's script arose from an intensive workshopping process that gathered 25 adolescents in a room with Bégaudeaufor nine months while three cameras recorded their interaction. These young people aren't quite playing themselves, though some of them do share a first name with their characters. But they're often improvising (from a script by Cantet and Robin Campillo), and their rowdy, overlapping classroom talk sounds so natural, it's impossible to imagine it being memorized or rehearsed.
For all the apparent spontaneity of the dialogue,The Class is as cannily structured as a great novel; details that seem random at first gradually coalesce into a richly layered story. As Bégaudeau (playing a character named François Marin) goads the students into becoming their best selves, he uses every tool at his disposal, from sarcasm to affectionate mockery to the Socratic method. His class is a cult of personality in the best sense; seeing how much attention and energy he brings to every moment of their interaction, his students—at least by moments—emerge from the fog of adolescent self-absorption to engage with language and ideas. François is clearly a born teacher, but he's no Mr. Chips, and The Class is no Dead Poets Society. His rambunctious multiracial students, many of them the children of immigrants, know how to give as good as they get, and one girl in particular, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), has a knack for backing her teacher into logical and pedagogical corners.
After one of Esmeralda's ruder outbursts, François takes her to task using language that gets him in trouble with the school administration. Meanwhile, Souleymane (Franck Keita), a Malian student, grows increasingly disruptive over the course of the year. When he violently storms out of class, accidentally injuring another student (and, equally shocking in the context of the school's culture, addresses his teacher with the informal tu), Souleymane faces a disciplinary process that may result in his deportation back to Africa. Does François' teaching method, apparently so egalitarian, mask a disturbing authoritarian streak? Did he, in fact, do right by Souleymane and the other kids? The movie's ending is inconclusive—justly and beautifully so. The Class chronicles, with great precision, a part of life rarely seen in the movies: the ambivalent love that exists between students and teachers. You walk out of the theater feeling unsettled, curious, and passionate to talk—as if you just spent two hours in the best class you ever took.