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School Life: Feel-good chaos (IANS Review; Rating: * * *)

“School Life” (Netflix film in French and Arabic languages, originally titled “La Vie Scolaire”); Cast: Zita Hanrot, Liam Pierron, Soufiane Guerrab, Moussa Mansaly, Alban Ivanov; Direction: Grand Corps Malade and Mehdi Idir; Rating: * * * (three stars)

By Vinayak Chakravorty

A coming-of-age drama, set in a suburban school with a bunch of unruly students, invariably finds its lead character in a (preferably not very old) teacher who’ll walk in brimming with confidence, tossing ideas that will transform the campus into a happy place.

The template works everywhere — from Bollywood (random recall: “Sir” or “Hip Hip Hurray”) to Hollywood (think “To Sir, With Love”) – and the formula can be moulded to suit whatever socio-political or cultural context a filmmaker may wish to convey.

This French-Arabic film, originally titled “La Vie Scolaire”, draws its context from the racial factor of the locality in which it is based — Saint-Denis, which is a Paris suburb mostly populated by migrants of colour.

For viewers in India that societal mapping may not hold much interest, unless you consider it is rendered with an autobiographical edge. Saint-Denis is the home turf of the film’s writer-director duo of slam poet Grand Corps Malade and hip-hop dancer Medhi Idir. Even without getting their commentative nuances, you don’t miss the emotional intimacy the director duo establishes in each character and situation. The outcome is endearing realism, a kind of feel-good chaos that grows on you.

In the undisciplined, unmotivated milieu of a Saint-Denis middle school arrives Samia (Zita Hanrot), the new vice-principal. Not many believe the students of the school have any sort of a bright future, and that includes the students themselves. Samia, however, sees things differently. She is convinced there is light at the end of the tunnel for the disillusioned bunch.

If directors Malade and Idir draw from personal memories to keep the story real, they have been smart with the casting, too. Most of the school kids are played out by local non-professionals. It adds an element of raw sincerity to the overall plot progression. Liam Pierron is particularly effective as Yanis, an intelligent but cynical boy whose bitterness about the treatment meted out to immigrants overrides his potential.

The script tries justifying why a polished academic as Samia should arrive in a locality as Saint-Denis through a personal subtext for the character. It needn’t have. All the same, Zita Hanrot’s performance as Samia remains the livewire that lights up this film.

“School Life” doesn’t bank on too many twists. Rather, the film portrays teen immigrant angst within the confines of its very French reality with bittersweet drama and humour. There is an element of universality about its characters and storyline that, though not wholly novel, could keep you engaged through its 111-minute runtime.

(Vinayak Chakravorty can be reached at vinayak.c@ians.in)

–IANS

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