Zita Hanrot, Liam Pierron, Soufiane Guerrab, Moussa Mansale
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The film’s value is in its egalitarian approach, that seeks to show all sides of the coin for students and teachers.
A large group of teachers assemble to discuss strategies for the new school term. Samia is introduced as the new vice principal (played by Zita Hanrot, Cesar winner and star of Netflix’s Plan Coeur) and it is through her point of view and reactions that we are introduced to the life of this suburban high school in Paris. The first few moments tell us the school has its share of challenges, common to the education system everywhere, especially how to discipline teenagers in mixed race and co-ed classrooms, particularly the ‘problem’ kids. Some schools integrate these pupils by spreading them across classes, but the policy here is to manage them in one group. They are known as the N.O.Ps, which means ‘No options (to choose electives)’ or, as one cynical teacher says, “All the dunces together”.
This fly on the wall, irreverent approach is a deliberate style choice from writer/ director Mehdi Idir, along with co-writer/director Grand Corps Mal, a nickname slam poet Fabien Marsaud adopted after a spinal injury. The pair worked together on Patients (2016), the adaptation of Grand Corps’ autobiography. The film was acknowledged for ‘coaxing comedy out of the unspeakable’ in a comedic take on the disability drama.
In School Life, classrooms are presented as challenging to long suffering teachers trying to maintain and model civility against a barrage of insolence and hostility. There are funny scenes as teachers cope by resorting to black humour or the totally inappropriate two school caretakers who use the kids as sport for their own amusement. There’s also a sports coach who’s borderline Tourettes with his foul-mouthed rants.
The film is in the familiar genre of classic schoolroom dramas where a newcomer teacher attempts to turn around the problem kids. To Sir With Love (1967) featured Sidney Poitier in an Oscar winning role as the ‘new broom’ teacher of an inner London school. The exceptional Stand and Deliver (1988) starred Edward James Olmos in a role based on real life maths teacher Jaime Escalante and gave us glimpses into troubled students’ lives at home and on the streets.
School Life also takes us into students’ home lives, so we get an insight into the context for their behaviour, what they might be managing outside school, and what they do or don’t tell the teachers. Long, loose scenes, some improvised, hover between documentary and plot-driven. It’s a credit to the directors that they encouraged the teenage actors to find their own words at times, but it leads to clunky, self-conscious moments. That’s characteristic of teenagers of course, but set against more well-acted performances, it’s uneven.
The script was inspired by the writer-directors’ own school experiences, especially Idir who based the character of Muslim student Yanis (newcomer Liam Pierron) on his own family background. The filmmakers researched at colleges and were also inspired by one of their friends who is a principal education advisor. And the film does offer sincere glimpses of troubled teens struggling to know what their options are in life.
The film’s value is in its egalitarian approach, that seeks to show all sides of the coin for students and teachers. By aiming to include a broad point of view, the storytelling is drawn out at times, as it flips between scenes of loose observation then onto sharp funny moments. The opening sequence that sets Samia up as the viewpoint uses a clunky slo-mo that seems out of synch with the rest of the film.