‘School Life’ review: teen camaraderie gives this gritty French drama a much-needed lift

Netflix comedy boasts jokes galore but avoids any unrealistic happy endings

A sea of out-of-tune recorders sets the tone for School Life, a portrait of a middle school like any other by French poet and lyricist Grand Corps Malade (born Fabien Marsaud) and his filmmaking collaborator Medhi Idir. The former is best known for his musical work, but his second feature film offers a truthful and rough-around-the-edges cinematic look at daily life just north of Paris.

Saint-Denis is a tough neighbourhood, famous for its sports stadium. It’s not where you’d think to send kids to school, which is why it makes for curious viewing material. School Life isn’t necessarily about one dramatic chronological chain of events. Instead, the film takes its time, over a whole academic year, to dip in and out of individual stories concerning both students and teachers coming to understand one another.

The narrative impetus is the arrival of Samia (Zita Hanrot), a new head teacher dealing with unruly students and sometimes unpredictable faculty members. She’s got her own personal reasons for moving up to the capital, and personal and professional politics intertwine as Samia grows closer to everyone in the school.

It’s refreshing to see a different kind of normal, one that these students and teachers wouldn’t think anything other than ordinary, but it could be jarring for many users scrolling through Netflix. The script is vivid and smart – if a bit on the nose at times, acting as a life lesson rather than leaving room for much subtext. It works when coupled with raw and credible performances across the board, but as the film develops you’re sometimes left wondering what might have been better read between the lines instead.

The best lines in the script are the jokes – a Van Gogh jab, a dig at French cinema, a house party conversation about teen sex – and there’s plenty of those. School Life offers a number of vignettes, mostly played in Samia’s office, which gives the chance to get to know a vast array of students beyond those at the centre of the narrative.

The teenager given the most screen time is Yanis (Liam Pierron), who has more in common with Samia than either would have thought. There are glimpses of a different future for him, one moving beyond the confines of the traditional French education system – its rigidity is criticised more than once – but ultimately this isn’t a picture-perfect story of an underdog. School Life avoids resolutions that are too easy, twists of fate that magically fix the messy realities these kids live in.

It’s not all bleak or nightmarish – the film toes the line between comedy and brutality tastefully. By existing in the in-between, School Life might not have heaps to offer in terms of plot twists, but it gives a rich understanding of a reality which is much closer than we might think.

Details

  • Director: Mehdi Idir, Grand Corps Malade
  • Starring: Zita Hanrot, Liam Pierron, Soufiane Guerrab
  • Release date: April 10
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