COLCOA Review: It’s ‘ELEMENTARY (PRIMAIRE)’ my dear Watson
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
You’ve seen films like writer-director Hélène Angel’s ELEMENTARY before – only you haven’t seen it done in such a profound, intimate, elegantly restrained way. Though this falls completely in line with the albeit-overpopulated “inspirational teacher” subgenre, Angel’s take has a tight emotional core anchoring the narrative in authenticity and poignancy without a hint of cloying saccharine. Coupled with yet another career-defining performance from Sara Forestier (SUZANNE, THE NAMES OF LOVE), this dramedy goes right for the jugular.
Florence’s (Forestier) greatest problem is that she cares too much about her 5th grade students. It gets her into trouble with the parents – all of whom think they know better than her – and even with her young son Denis (Albert Cousi), whom she also teaches. He feels the pain of neglect and embarrassment by her on a daily basis. However, Florence is about to face her greatest lesson yet when Sacha (Ghillas Bendjoudi) joins her class. He’s a ball of anger, having been abandoned physically and emotionally by his mother. His only temporary lifeline is his mother’s flighty ex-boyfriend Mathieu (Vincent Elbaz), who’s barely getting by on his own. Similar to other students in the class, Florence makes Sacha her project hoping to save him from his neglectful mother and the innumerable toll of the foster system.
Perhaps the best parts of Angel’s work are when she moves past the kinetic chaos of the classroom hours, showing the emotional impact group learning has on an individual level. The sequences set during class lessons are mostly there for us to get to know the kids and how Florence teaches with authority and grace. Like most of the best teachers, she adapts lessons to the kids’ learning styles, going above and beyond with a few students like Sacha and Tara, who is struggling to read. She also gently encourages private learning teacher Mrs. Duru (Guilaine Londez) to let her learning disabled charge Charlie (Hannah Brunt) learn on her own. Duru’s nurturing touch on Charlie, in turn, has an incredibly poignant payoff as well – one I get verklempt thinking about. Flo’s spirit also affects the principal (Patrick d’Assumçao), who makes Denis and Sacha apologize to the young students for losing their class rabbit. And don’t worry, animal lovers. Sombrero is okay.
Forestier commands the screen as effortlessly as her character commands the classroom. Her performance is filled with raw vulnerability, strength and intelligence, adding nuance when the dialogue isn’t enough. Though the romance between Florence and Mathieu is a tad forced, unnecessary and leads to an obvious conclusion, she and Elbaz have great chemistry. I mean, if she didn’t have that grown up outlet, the film would’ve been lacking. It just needed a bit more finesse so it’s a relationship we root for rather than one that’s inevitable.
ELEMENTARY played ColCoa on April 30. It currently has no US Distribution.