School Life tells a familiar tale of at-risk youth being championed by an idealistic educator, but it tells it with arresting and powerful authenticity.
This review of School Life (Netflix) is spoiler-free. It debuted on Netflix on April 10, 2020.
School Life (Netflix), a French-Arabic dramedy rebranded by the streaming giant from La Vie Scolaire, feels in some way like a cruel reminder of a recent past in which our kids actually went to school. Then again, one hopes they didn’t go anywhere like the Saint-Denis middle school in which this film is set; its ostensible protagonist, young vice-principle Samia Zibra (Zita Hanrot), seems to be the only one who views its primarily non-white migrant student body as worthwhile.
The undercurrents of classism and irrational fear – of migrants in particular, but of “others” in general – help to give School Life some thematic punch, but its in-the-moment pleasures are the result of an arresting authenticity. A fellow teacher, Thierry (Antoine Reinartz), is Samia’s confidante and potential love interest, but the sparkier relationships are between her and the students, most of whom aren’t played by professional actors and embody the live-wire self-destructive impulses that are as much an obstacle to these troubled kids as the media that vilifies them, the law enforcement services who harass them, and the system that seems to stymy any progress they might make.
Working from a based-on-real-life screenplay by Saint-Denis natives and directors Fabien “Grand Corps Malade” Marsaud and Mehdi Idir, these kids and their authentic outbursts, along with a winning, warm performance from Hanrot, help to give School Life an edge of informed realism that most films of its type don’t have – and this without losing any of the emotional power in well-crafted drama. It’s the best of both worlds in this affecting depiction of a specific community that nonetheless speaks to universal themes, anxieties, fears, and hopes.
We are fast becoming the number one independent website for streaming coverage. Please support Ready Steady Cut today. Secure its future — we need you!
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.