Small Triumphs Trump Hollywood Endings in The Class and Goodbye Solo

There is a long history of films about teachers and their students; a quick round-up of titles would have to include The Corn Is Green, To Sir, With Love, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lean on Me, and Dangerous Minds, and the list goes on and on. Most of these films, at some point, become stories about learning, about inspiration, about triumph, even as the difficulty of learning and inspiring and pulling off that triumph is made plain. This usually makes such films satisfying to watch, which is one of the reasons they're so easily called to mind. The Class (Sony Classics) offers a somewhat less pat take on the subject, and for that is every bit as memorable.

Director Laurent Cantet narrows his focus to the middle-school French class of young, middle-class, white Parisian Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau). The school is in a working-class area, and many of his students are minorities, often the children of immigrants. After a few introductory scenes of the teachers preparing for a new year, Francois stands in front of the blackboard, talking. And the kids talk back. And that's how most of the movie passes.

Begaudeau co-wrote the script based on his own novel, which in turn was based on his own experience teaching in a school like the one in the film. That realistic grounding helps make The Class the Saving Private Ryan of classroom dramas, offering a vivid, realistic view of something so often simplified or prettied up in other films. Francois' class contains few academic bright pennies, but the students are quick to pick up on his missteps or shaky premises and challenge them. They challenge him constantly, in fact, sparring with him across the gulfs in age, background, and role that separate them, breaking up the flow of his instruction sometimes seemingly just because it's more fun than playing along. He teaches them, but he's sometimes the one getting schooled. It makes for a surprisingly gripping film.

Though there's no plot to speak of, eventually The Class coalesces dramatically around Francois' struggles with loudmouthed Esmerelda (Esmerelda Quertani) and back-row discipline problem Souleymane (Franck Keita). Francois finds himself pushed a little too far, and an incident occurs that damages Francois' standing with his students and puts Souleymane in danger of expulsion. Francois has made a mistake—an all-too-human gaffe, but cringe-making nonetheless—though it is Souleymane who seems likely to pay for it. Francois feels it all, keenly.

The classroom scenes with Begaudeau and the amateur cast of students are so perfectly, chaotically prosaic that it's a bit of a shock when Cantet cuts away to a more composed shot and you're reminded anew that The Class isn't a documentary. Cantet doesn't follow Francois or the students off school property, but he gets plenty of their inner lives onscreen just by keeping his camera on their faces and catching the nuances of their reactions to each other. Though playing himself, more or less, Begaudeau is especially impressive; you can see the wheels turning as he attempts to keep control of his lesson, his emotions, and his class from minute to minute. The typical arc for these sorts of films is that lessons are learned, though the lessons learned here are particularly unsentimental ones. Poignant but clear-eyed, The Class is a remarkable achievement.

A similarly unfussy, unblinking approach defines Goodbye Solo (Lionsgate), the latest film from Ramin Bahrani. Working as a cab driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., Senegalese immigrant Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) picks up a crusty old white man named William (character actor/former Memphis Mafia member Red West). William makes an arrangement with Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock, N.C., in two weeks' time—one way. This makes Solo suspicious. Although William is a stranger, and patently uninterested in Solo butting in to his business, Solo won't be dissuaded from trying to befriend his passenger, even though he's got problems of his own—particularly an expecting girlfriend (Carmen Leyva) who's none too happy about his dreams of leaving his cab behind to become a flight attendant.

Bahrani has made a stellar career to date out of closely observed films about the lives of marginalized people and their epic struggles to make it day to day, most especially 2008's Chop Shop; like that film, much of Goodbye Solo's success hinges on the lead. The uncanny Savane's Solo always flashes a smile, always has his patter running, calling the unimpressed William "Big Dog" and "player," but Bahrani's camera is watchful enough to catch Solo's sympathy for and uncertainty over his grudging friend. Solo may want to "save" William from whatever unrevealed malaise has taken over his life, but he comes to move past such an ambition, and the uneasy dance of revelations and rebuffs and understandings that leads to Solo and William in a cab on the way to Blowing Rock constitutes one of the finer and more understated films of the year so far.