Near the end of The Class, a girl tells her teacher that she’s learned nothing the past year at school, and that the books they read in class are useless. Her teacher finds that hard to believe, so he asks her about the books she reads at home. “Well, there’s The Republic.” He’s surprised, obviously. “By Plato?” “Yeah.” If there’s something The Class wants to teach us, it’s that kids, like this one, can be surprising.
The movie follows a teacher and his class of ninth graders in a tough district of Paris throughout a school year. The teacher, named Mr. Marin, is played by Francois Begaudeau, who wrote about his experiences teaching in Paris (he’s actually a teacher, not an actor, or so they say) and the novel was adapted loosely into The Class. It’s a loose adaptation because the kids play themselves, not characters from a book – they use their real names. Most of the scenes came about through structured improvs with Francois and the kids, and maybe that’s why the acting in this film never feels like acting.
Mr. Marin’s job is not easy: the kids tease him, insult him, ignore him, threaten him, write him hateful letters, and one particularly problematic student accuses him of being gay. Yet it’s his resilience that makes the movie so hopeful: he gets all of this young teenage garbage thrown at him daily, and he’s still doing his thing the next day, ready for something good to happen in his class, for a moment when we’d get to see what makes it all worth it for him in the end. There’s a few of those moments: apparently teaching isn’t all fire and brimstone (that would be substitute teaching). These moments of hope are very rewarding: if you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, why anyone would want to be a teacher, The Class seems to offer an answer.
The main conflict of the story is centered around one particularly troubled youth named Souleymane, and the school’s unfruitful attempts to get him to actually do some homework, among other things. As time passes his behavior seems to be getting worse (he risks turning his French lessons into boxing matches), to everyone except Mr. Marin, who’s discovered that the boy has a secret penchant for photography, and is trying to encourage him. We get to see a stand-off between Mr. Marin, who believes the boy can be helped, and the rest of the school board which seems to be leaning more and more towards expulsion. We root for Mr. Marin’s cause ever since we see Souleymane’s eyes light up when Mr. Marin posts his photos on the wall for his classmates to see, and can’t help feeling frustrated by the school system that seems to offer no alternatives but to expel the young boy – which, to complicate matters, could lead to his being sent back to his father’s home in Mali.
We empathize with Souleymane partially because of his surprising soft-spot for photography, but mainly because it’s easy to relate to being messed up at that age. You could argue that every student in The Class is lost in some way, just like every kid in the real world was in junior high. And these are kids in the real world, they’re not actors, they’re just kids, and maybe that’s what makes this film so powerful. The kids get to be kids, they’re not forced to try to be actors, and we believe them through all of their confused, hormonal outbursts. This may be Francois Begaudeau’s book, and it may be Mr. Marin’s story, but time and time again, the kids surprise us and steal the show.