School Life – movie review

How tough a job is teaching and disciplining a bunch of lively, but often disinterested and unmotivated students? The engaging French dramedy School Life (La Vie Scolaire) explores that question.

A new vice-principal, Samia Zibra (Zita Hanrot), arrives at a school in economically disadvantaged Saint-Denis. She wants to do all she can to make a difference in the lives of the students. She claims she has moved to be closer to Paris. In reality, her boyfriend has been incarcerated nearby.

The biggest thorn in her side is a 15-year-old year nine student named Yanis Bensaadi (Liam Pierron). He’s not a bad kid … in fact he’s quite cheeky, but his biggest influence is a 20-year-old drug dealer. Yanis doesn’t get along with one teacher in particular that – and isn’t afraid to lash out. His mum is doing it tough as her husband (Yanis and his sister’s father) is also in jail, at the same one in which Samia’s partner is doing time. Yanis is not at all convinced that school is the right place for him. When Yanis tells Samia he likes gangster movies, she tries to motivate him to pursue an audio-visual course. But with Yanis, nothing is easy.

This pair – Samia and Yanis – are the mainstays of the picture, but there are other threads too. They include the VP’s two sidekicks, a fellow teacher who has taken an interest in her and who has been at the school for eight years and Samia’s interactions with many other students and a few parents.

There is a lot going on … all the time and the path is not only busy, but rocky. The points of heightened drama are regularly offset by lighter moments and the mix is a compelling one. Much credit must go to the writers and directors Mehdi Idir and Grand Corps Malade. Their touchstones are easily relatable. They’ve done a fine job crafting such a multitude of players and bringing them all together so seamlessly.

To get the most out of School Life, you need to pay attention, something many of the kids struggle with. School Life has charm, substance, subtlety and humour. Hanrot is natural and convincing in the lead; while there’s a feeling of “whatever will be, will be” in Pierron’s harder to read portrayal of a kid on the precipice.

School Life revels in pleasant realism, without false bravado or the promise of a happy ending.

Alex First

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