The school monitors treat the morning Meet and Greet with the kids as an insult contest.
Unstylish back pack? Just make sure your “parachute” doesn’t open in the middle of class.
Asian kid’s late? Don’t they have buses in “Chinatown?” And “I think he made my (sneaker) shoes!”
The kids are a non-violent collection of smart alecks and misfits, the cutest punks this side of “West Side Story.” Even their insults are adorable — “Corn eater” for a Black kid, “You bunch of kebobs” and “dirty Arab” for the Algerians.
Welcome to middle school, 9th grade, in Saint-Denis, that troubled northern suburb of Paris where many a French crime drama is set, but also the home to “School Life,” a French “Dangerous Minds” that is more comic than “Dangerous.”
It’s the where the new school counselor, Samia Zibra (Zita Hanro) would like to make her mark. We see the school year through her eyes. She’s not fresh out of school, but the tidal wave of French education acronyms — PEZ, PEN, NEC and the French SAT (BAC) — are defined for her, and us, during morning faculty meetings.
They joke about the pathologically tardy pathological liar Farid…”On my mother’s life…” or this Miss Goody-two-shoes or that miscreant.
Everybody’s favorite “problem” student is Yanis (Liam Pierron), a mouthy 15 year-old who is blowing the “key year” of his education. Ninth grade, freshman year, is when your educational course is set — college track, trades, or “assembling furniture for IKEA.” Yanis insults teachers, always quick “with a comeback,” stares out the window and gives the impression that he’s smart but too cool to care.
Like Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in “Dangerous Minds,” Ms. Zibra isn’t fresh out of college and naive. She is fighting fires, just like everybody else — a daily parade of ill-mannered, whiny, interrupting and tuned-out teens who have to be managed, re-directed and brought to their Go Big or Go Home moment.
She’s as ready as anybody else to give up on Yanis, although not as ready as the “You look like Van Gogh!” history teacher, Thierry, who hates him. But running into him after school one day makes her take an interest. His random “change the subject” interruptions convince her that he’d be a natural for film school.
In the U.S., only lazy rich kids with ADHD get into film school. Vive la dif·fé·rence!
Everything seen here seems derivative of a hundred Hollywood “school” dramas and comedies, with novel French touches. If the kids’ abuse of the history teacher (Antoine Reinartz) doesn’t stop, “I’ll do what everyone ELSE does, take a leave of absence.”
The PE teacher is bored with conventional sports. He teaches Roller Football (soccer), kids kicking a ball, and each other, on skates. What could go wrong?
One faculty member protects his student drug connection from discipline, the music teacher discovers a rap prodigy in the middle of his class’s “Learn to play the recorder” months (in the US, that’s an early elementary school instrument).
The parent-counselor/teacher meetings are funny and biting. Ms. Zibra is appalled when a father first learns of his son’s tendency to get up in class and show off by dancing. “DANCE for ME, SHOW me!” No no, Ms. Zibra, LET him show Dad his go-to stunt. It’s humiliating and funny, and in spite of her “humanist” discipline bent, we sense it’ll be effective.
But with every brief and melodramatic off-campus dalliance in a student or Ms. Zibra’s home life, “School Life” points out what a long and wildly uneven movie experience it is.
No matter what your French skills, I’d suggest watching it dubbed into English, with the subtitles on. Both translations add to the hilarity. The subtitled insults are colorful and distinctly French. They’re dirtied up with extra profanity for the dubbed soundtrack. And kids bickering about soccer stars are dubbed into have Kevin Garnett NBA debates.
The biggest problem with the picture is obvious in my choice of photos parked at the top of the review. I NEVER post ad images from a film, but Netflix makes this point graphically in the picture on the left. Girls are all but INVISIBLE in this movie — a good student here, an empathetic busybody (“You don’t know what Lamine is GOING through!”) there.
The only female student in this sexist enterprise to get her own session with the school counselor is the one who dresses “like a whore” whose mother shows up in a short-shorter-shortest skirt flashing cleavage.
So I won’t recommend “School Life” on its meager merits. It’s derivative, uneven, clumsy and absurdly sexist. But educators, stuck at home, will get a few laughs out of the differences and universalities of middle school, over here and over there.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Zita Hanrot, Liam Pierron, Soufiane Guerrab, Moussa Mansal, Alban Ivanov
Credits: Written and directed by Mehdi Adir and Grand Corps Malade. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:52