Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, an adaptation of the stage play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, opens with kids playing in a Montréal public-school yard only moments before mischievous 11-year-old Simon (Émilien Néron) runs inside to discover his teacher hanging from the ceiling of her classroom. With her school thrown into an emotional tizzy, the principal hires the first pleasant face with a résumé to walk into her office, an Algerian transplant named Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag). Upon his humble arrival, one would expect to settle in for one of those heart-tugging dramas about a heroic teacher swooping in to rescue downtrodden students, but as he grapples with ways to bring light back into his horrified classroom, it’s revealed he’s struggling with a heavy heart of his own.
When the doors open to Lazhar’s private life, we learn that he’s no run-of-the-mill expatriate, but a yet-to-be-legal refugee whose wife and two young daughters were murdered by terrorists during the Algerian civil war. From there, Flardeau weaves in effective, cinematic parallels between the teacher (who keeps his struggles hidden when at school) and his students, who each deal with the tragedy in unique, thought-provoking ways. The film brings up a lot of issues, which, if you don’t know where to focus, may prove distracting. The real joy of it is in the classroom, where Fellag and a cast of talented ’tweens draw up a lesson plan about dealing with tragedy and finding that glowing exit sign at the end of a dark hall.