Simple, direct and powerful, this unadorned doc follows a class of 11 and 12-year-old immigrant students struggling to improve their French at a Parisian school. Laurent Cantet’s fictionalised Palme d’Or winner ‘The Class’ is clearly an inspiration, but ‘School of Babel’ is looser, less formal and perhaps more emotionally complex. Following the class through an entire school year, the surface is all bittersweet bickering and simplistic rivalries of religion, class and nationality.
But there’s a deeper undertow, an edge of desperation in almost every child’s story. One pupil’s mother threatens to send her back to her physically abusive father if she doesn’t pull her socks up, while another can’t seem to decide if she’s more miserable in France than she was back home in China.
Director Julie Bertuccelli wisely refrains from placing undue stress on these darker moments, but her sympathies are never in doubt. Her focus, too, is razor-sharp, training her camera strictly on the kids, at least until a heartstring-tugging end-of-term finale.