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The Pick: Monsieur Lazhar, Quebec’s latest Oscar contender

For Toronto cinephiles, it’s hard not to envy Quebeckers. La Belle Province is home to a robust and thriving film industry, and perennially turns out movies that are not only well received by critics, but well attended too. Indeed, it can be downright disheartening that a single province can consistently produce graceful, powerful movies like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Incendies, both of which hit that critic-audience sweet spot, while English Canada languishes with the likes of Score: A Hockey Musical. Monsieur Lazhar, which won Best Canadian Feature at TIFF last year and is nominated in the foreign language category at this year’s Oscars, is the latest Quebec flick to make us jealous.

Director Philippe Falardeau’s film takes place at an elementary school after a teacher commits suicide, and a passionate but unlikely replacement, an Algerian immigrant named Bashir Lazhar, tries to fill the void. It’s a touching story about the different ways that children and adults deal with tragedy. The film has its flaws—certain major plot points are hard to reconcile, and stretches of dialogue are stilted, verging on didactic—but don’t get too distracted by them. Instead, focus on Mohamed Fellag, who gives a restrained and elegant performance as the well-meaning Lazhar. And focus on the kids. Lazhar’s young class carries the film, particularly Sophie Nélisse as the precocious Alice and Émilien Néron as the angry, troubled Simon. Their performances exhibit the depth and emotion so rare in child actors. At times, it’s so convincing that you’ll forget this isn’t a documentary. The movie is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox—by far the best venue in the city—till at least February 26, making it easy to pretend, for 94 minutes at least, that you’re in Quebec (with subtitles, of course).

The details: Until Feb. 26 (unless it’s extended). Various times. $12. TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., tiff.net.

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