LES HÉRITIERS, not rated, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
In France, students in public schools are forbidden from wearing overt religious symbols, including headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans, or large crosses. In some schools, even donning headbands and long skirts can get girls suspended, a policy seen by many as specifically targeting Muslims. In the opening scene of Les héritiers, which is based on a true story, a young woman who has passed her baccalauréat — required to attend university — has come to her high school to pick up her certificate. Even though she is no longer a student, a teacher refuses her entry because she is wearing a headscarf. The loud altercation goes unresolved, and we do not meet the young woman again. We fast-forward to the first day of the following school year, where we meet a multicultural class of students so disaffected and rowdy they openly mock their homeroom advisor, Mme. Gueguen (Ariane Ascaride). Madame, of course, will have the last laugh in this message-heavy, Stand and Deliver- style movie that succeeds despite its potential for easy answers.
Gueguen is an art history teacher, but in an environment of growing religious and cultural tension, it is difficult for the students to absorb their lesson in Byzantine art without it devolving into an argument about whether or not a painting is anti-Muslim and pro-Christian. Gueguen is pragmatic and, unlike some of the other teachers, forgiving of the students’ angry outbursts and defensive posturing. She teaches them the meaning of propaganda, saying, “There are no innocent images.” A series of events leads her to invite the class to participate in an extracurricular national civics competition, for which they must prepare a presentation about children and adolescents imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. They balk at first but come around, and through the process they learn empathy and research methods, history and teamwork. They forge new friendships, come out of their shells, and find academic direction.
Many American movies about the education of at-risk youth, such as 1995’s Dangerous Minds, follow a similar path to Les héritiers, but this story has a subtlety and purpose that elevates it, as well as believable, natural acting by the large cast of teenagers. Its fragmented pacing and brief glimpses into the students’ lives outside of school make it lightly reminiscent of the 1976 Truffaut classic, Small Change. The point of Les
héritiers does not seem to be to save the students from the streets but to make them understand the world in which they live and to be able to see past propaganda to larger truths about human nature. The students discover for themselves how much past and present prejudice shapes their daily lives and that it is only by waking up to history that they can alter the future. — Jennifer Levin
Teacher’s pet: Amine Lansari and Ariane Ascaride