A blanket of white covers Montreal inside and out in Monsieur Lazhar, the understated and affecting Canadian drama that earned an Oscar nomination this year for Best Foreign Film. The schoolyard where Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron) exchange their usual morning jabs is capped with snow, and their classroom is filled with bright winter light. Within the first minutes of the film, the brisk, clean-aired comfort of that light is cut by an incongruous moment of darkness, and the rest of writer/director Philippe Falardeau's fourth feature charts the resulting wave of grief as it breaks across a school community. Alice and Simon's class gets a new coat of paint and a new teacher — the monsieur of the title (Mohamed Fellag), a mysterious Algerian immigrant — as the school attempts to cope (with an incident I'd rather not give away). Falardeau meshes Lazhar's secrets and the hidden turbulence of the situation he has stepped into with a sensitivity that lifts the story out of refugee cliché. Nélisse, with her tough, Courtney Love puss, and Néron's portrayal of a boy's well-defended torment are extraordinary, as is the film's realization of the small, temporary world that surrounds them. Hitting upon that kind of specificity — of a moment and its emotion — makes for strong memories and a really great movie.
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