It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
In an opening scene of "Monsieur Lazhar," it's Simon's day to pick up cartons of milk and deliver them to his Montreal fourth-grade classroom before the school day begins. Looking in through the door, he realizes that his teacher has hung herself from a ceiling pipe. Only one other student sees this before the teachers usher all the students back into the playground.
This incident, reported in a Quebec newspaper, is the inspiration for Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) to present himself at the school principal's office and volunteer to teach the class. He is a legal immigrant from Algeria, he explains, where he taught primary school for 19 years. The principal is Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), who like most school administrators these days, is rigid in conforming to the rules. Hiring Monsieur Lazhar is a bit of an excursion for her, but he is a well-spoken, presentable man and makes a good impression.
"Monsieur Lazhar," which begins in the dead of winter, follows his work in the classroom all the way through until summer. During that time, he — and we — get to know the students, who are generally cheerful and well-behaved, and get on well with their new teacher. They are assumed to be traumatized by their teacher's suicide, and a psychologist is assigned to spend closed-door sessions with the class. We, and Monsieur Lazhar, are closed out of these sessions, but Lazhar on his own tells the students some gentle truths and assures them it wasn't their fault.
For this and other transgressions, he is criticized by the principal; to follow the rules, a teacher seems hardly allowed to be human. A student throws a paper ball at a classmate, and Lazhar, standing right there, taps him sharply on the head. This, too, is wrong; teachers are forbidden to touch students in any way. God forbid they would hug one, or pat one on the shoulder. I now realize that when Sister Ambrosina in the first grade at St. Mary's in Champaign snapped us with a strict fingernail it was brutality, although I always knew why I had it coming.