In 1987’s Summer School, an unconventional teacher (Mark Harmon in a Hawaiian shirt) gives his all to inspire a group of misfit students.
Throw out the questionable wardrobe, goofball antics and Kirstie Alley (please!), and you pretty much have every other movie about inspirational teachers — Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, School of Rock and now Les Choristes.
Although much prettier and more continental than its peers, Les Choristes (The Chorus) is hardly at the head of its class. Frankly, this underachiever is an uninspired depiction of a classic tale of inspiration: the teacher who, in the face of utmost tyranny, motivates his class, but then gets tossed out on his derrière.
Before you cry spoiler, remember the teacher’s eventual ejection is par for the course in the schoolhouse genre. In fact, nothing in this plot defies convention.
Les Choristes is set in post-World War II France, in a cold, dilapidated reform school for boys. The principal is a lunatic who brutally punishes his charges — many of whom have been orphaned or abandoned. He beats them, locks them away for weeks in a dank dungeon and passes out regular lashings of verbal abuse.
But wait! A new teacher and school supervisor, Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), comes to the rescue. A washed-up musician, Mathieu serves under the evil principal yet manages to finagle permission to start a choir.
From here it’s the same old song. His compassion and the music break through to the kids and other teachers. Just as everything starts humming along nicely, some loser spoils it. Mathieu gets the boot, but not without one last predictable hurrah. Director Christophe Barratier even provides a Dead Poets-esque farewell.
The characters are played with understated style and appropriate charm. Jugnot gives Mathieu a warm smile and gentleness that’s as sweet and comforting as a mug of hot cocoa, and the angelic-voiced boys make the Vienna Boys Choir look like thugs.
Granted, there’s something ridiculous about a group of untrained youths suddenly singing like seasoned masters, but otherwise Les Choristes is generally cozy, cute and innocuous in a way that might make you miss that guy Chainsaw or Harmon’s Hawaiian shirt.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills). 248-263-2111.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.
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