A class act: ‘Elementary’ reveals a teacher’s real triumphs and tragedies

This kind of film ignores the real problems in most classrooms, the everyday tragedies that come from rigid bureaucracies, low budgets and pupils who grow up in abusive or neglectful households.

November 15, 2017 15:26
3 minute read.
‘Elementary’ reveals a teacher’s real triumphs and tragedies

‘Elementary’ reveals a teacher’s real triumphs and tragedies. (photo credit: COURTESY OF EDEN CINEMA)


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Hebrew title: Beit Sefer l’Haim
Directed by Helene Angel
With Sara Forestier, Albert Cousi, Vincent Elbaz
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
In French. Check with theaters for subtitle information.

Teaching is a high-stress, poorly paid, intermittently rewarding profession, and few movies capture the daily drama of the classroom as well as Helene Angel’s Elementary, a look at a young teacher in France caught between the demands of her job and her responsibility to her own son.

Most films that focus on schoolrooms have a predictable, upbeat narrative: A charismatic teacher comes in to teach an unruly group of kids and makes a difference in their lives, particularly for the most disruptive kids, who usually turn out to need nothing more than love and attention.

This kind of film ignores the real problems in most classrooms, the everyday tragedies that come from rigid bureaucracies, low budgets and pupils who grow up in abusive or neglectful households.

The triumphs of even the best, most devoted teachers are often small moments that are overlooked, while their mistakes are scrutinized and criticized. Elementary captures the reality of teaching brilliantly.

Sara Forestier, one of France’s most gifted actresses, plays Florence, a single mother and very caring elementary school teacher in Grenoble. Her students are a diverse group, with bright middleclass kids vying for attention with underachievers and children with special needs.

In the film’s one bizarre and unrealistic plot turn, her son, Denis (Albert Cousi), is in her class, and she continually ignores him. When I was growing up in America, parents were never allowed to teach their own children. Denis is a bright student and gifted musician, but he gets angry and eventually acts out because his mother pays so much more attention to the other kids in his class. These include an Asian girl who has trouble reading; a special-needs student who attends class with an overly zealous, misguided aide who does the girl’s work for her; a dreamy kid who falls asleep in class; and other kids who need all different kinds of help. Florence wants to help them all but is clueless about how she is neglecting her son. She can’t understand that he needs her praise in the classroom just as much as the other kids do.

Florence doesn’t only ignore her son, but she ignores her own needs as well. A single mother, she doesn’t seem to have any kind of social life, and she and her son actually live in an apartment in the school. When a disruptive boy from one of the other classes turns out to have been abandoned by his mother, she throws herself into helping him. Since no one else on the staff is up to the task, she goes to see the boy’s mother and spends time with the boy and the mother’s ex-boyfriend (Vincent Elbaz), who is taking care of him temporarily. Denis gets even angrier and wants to go to Indonesia with his father, who is building houses in rural areas.

Florence’s stress builds as she directs a school play about Greek gods and, as we all know, school productions so often bring pressure and tears, as well as joy.

Florence’s story reminds me of many teachers I’ve known who were great with kids but didn’t seem to know how to make their way outside the classroom and eventually got burnt out. Florence is a refreshingly complex, often unlikable character. She is always sure that she’s right, and she often is, but that doesn’t make her easy to work or live with. Forestier’s portrayal brought to mind Jane Craig, the brainy but often abrasive news producer played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Forestier is beautiful but she acts this character so well that you often forget her good looks, especially when she is being particularly infuriating. The child actors all give wonderful, very believable and not overly cute performances, a tribute to how well writer/director Angel has worked with them.

Elementary is a very honest and engrossing story that will bring you back to your school days, and its insights will give you great respect for anyone tough and brave enough to choose teaching as a profession.

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