SLIFF 2015 Review – ONCE IN A LIFETIME
The travails and triumphs of teachers have been ample fodder for filmmakers almost since the start of cinema. But it wasn’t until the strains of “Rock Around the Clock” at the start of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE over 60 years ago that the movies really delved into the true life frustrations that many educators faced. Not only was there rampant violence, but an overall apathy often squelched any attempts at learning. Through the years, similar themes have been explored, from UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE to DANGEROUS MINDS. The teachers in those films struggle to get through to the students, to connect, engage, motivate. Well, it turns out such struggles are universal, even in Paris. That’s the setting of the new drama ONCE IN A LIFETIME.
After we witness a heated argument between in the administrative offices over religious garb, we then meet the high school teacher trying against incredible odds to break through to her often unruly class, a middle-aged red-haired firecracker, Ms. Anne (Ariane Ascaride). Many times she seemed to be playing the referee (or lion tamer) rather than instructor, breaking up fights, confiscating cell phones, and making sure none of them dozes off. The pupils all hail from the toughest part of the city, all different races and ethnicities, and nearly all intolerant of each others’ differences. How can she unite them, or just keep their focus? Anne hits upon an idea. They will all work on one project and submit this group report to a nationwide scholastic competition. And what of the subject? The grim story of French children in Nazi concentration camps will be explored. The students are indifferent. Didn’t this happen several countries away, not in their own back yards? Suddenly they’re forming groups and teams all in order to gather all the information. And when an elderly survivor of the camps, Leon Zyguel, visits the classroom to give his own testimony, the students are inspired. But can Anne keep the energy level up and lead them to victory at the big competition ceremony?
A film that could have devolved into a remake of TO SIR WITH LOVE or even an R-rated “after school special” becomes so much more thanks to the steady, subtle direction of Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar and the script she co-wrote with Ahmad Drame, who also plays the tough but tender student Malik. The film almost feels like a horror/thriller in its first act, with lots of threats and screaming arguments. But with the beginning of the big project, we’re shown how the kids are actually “alright” as they begin to think about their country’s past and develop an empathy for others. This change is driven home by the remarkable sequence with Zyguel, as this gentle soul touches their hearts and minds with his harrowing tale of loss. Based on actual events, ONCE IN A LIFETIME is an inspiring story of healing and hope through the wonder of education and one tough, determined teacher.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME screens at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas on Thursday, November 12 at 7:05 PM and Saturday, November 14 at 4 PM as part of the 24th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. Purchase tickets here and here