In a role somewhat better-grounded than those she’s played in films like Love Battles and The Names of Love, Sara Forestier portrays a straight-laced schoolteacher in Helene Angel’s Elementary (Primaire), a lively dramedy that realistically captures the unpredictable world of grade-school education. Although the film’s subject matter may not constitute the main draw for U.S. audiences, committed performances and a judicious shading of humor could help Angel’s feature make the grade on premium cable or streaming platforms following a January theatrical release in France.
For 30ish teacher Florence (Forestier), working with primary school children has become more than a career; it’s almost her entire raison d’etre. Providing marginal students extra help with reading, devising alternative approaches to confusing math problems, or just sharing a kind word or two are some of her highest priorities in the classroom. This level of dedication extends to her off-hours as well, when she’s rarely far from the school grounds, since she shares an apartment on the property with her 10-year-old son Denis (Albert Cousi), who’s also a student in her fifth-grade class of 20-plus pupils.
Florence encounters her greatest challenge yet when burly young Sacha (Ghillas Bendjoudi) arrives as a transfer student. It’s soon clear why he’s been bouncing around between schools: His behavioral problems constantly disrupt classes and he’s prone to bullying other kids when he doesn’t get his way. Rather than discipline, she tries persuasion, attempting to convince the boy to stop acting out as she gives him a bit more of the attention that he craves.
Florence only learns about his precarious home situation after he’s stranded at school when nobody picks him up after classes. She quickly discovers that his mother routinely leaves Sacha to fend for himself while she’s away on lengthy business trips. In her absence, his family emergency contact turns out to be Mathieu (Vincent Elbaz), one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends, who seems amenable to taking the boy in, at least temporarily. Florence isn’t about to give up on Sacha quite so quickly, however, leaving her oblivious to the aggravation that her awkward efforts are causing the school staff. Meanwhile, Mathieu starts developing more romantic ideas about Florence, and if she could only focus on her personal life for a moment, she might also realize that Denis is feeling neglected after his parents’ divorce and slighted by his mom’s fierce advocacy for the school bully.
Angel makes a strong impression by re-creating both the energy and chaos of primary school classrooms and the unpredictable situations often surrounding young children. Florence frequently gets caught at the confluence of youthful enthusiasm, confusion and emotional turmoil, juggling dozens of variables while keeping the kids on track, but it’s the personal connection with the students that keeps her engaged and energized.
Forestier displays a surprising affinity for the domestic issues framing Elementary, which is concerned almost exclusively with childcare, whether at home or at school. In a performance both spontaneous and impassioned, she clearly conveys the empathy required from extraordinary teachers. Unpredictable and irreverent, Elbaz’s Mathieu provides a formidable foil for Florence’s rule-bound approach to life, but he’s introduced too late and appears too infrequently to adequately lighten the mood.
Clearly agenda-driven, Angel’s serious-minded script, co-written with Yann Coridian, demonstrates perhaps too much admiration for educators, whose variable ability isn’t sufficiently reflected among the uncommonly dedicated supporting cast of instructors and administrators. The youthful actors playing the students counteract that tendency to some extent, particularly in classroom scenes where Angel’s two-camera setups amusingly capture the kids’ more spontaneous interactions.
Production companies: Lionceau Films, StudioCanal, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Sara Forestier, Vincent Elbaz, Patrick d’Assumcao, Guilaine Londez, Olivia Cote, Lucie Desclozeaux, Albert Cousi, Ghillas Bendjoudi
Director: Helene Angel
Screenwriters: Helene Angel, Yann Coridian
Producer: Helene Cases
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Catherine Rigault
Editors: Sylvie Lager, Christophe Pinel, Yann Dedet
Music: Philippe Miller
Casting director: Julie Navarro
Venue: COLCOA French Film Festival
Not rated, 105 minutes