‘International Movies -School Life’
Movies about saintly teachers trying to make a difference in at-risk schools are a dime a dozen, but few pull off the feel-good premise with as much grit or wit as this French comedy. “School Life” stars the luminous Zita Hanrot as Samia Zibra, a newly arrived counselor at a high school in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, where the population skews poor and immigrant.
Directed by the rapper Grand Corps Malade (Fabien Marsaud) and the hip-hop dancer Mehdi Idir — both of whom grew up in Saint-Denis — “School Life” is a moving portrait of life in the French suburbs and an incisive critique of an education system that tells disadvantaged kids that they’re not worth their dreams. But above all, the film is a stirring ode to the sparkling humor and resourcefulness of students toughened by a hard-knock life.
Laugh-out-loud set pieces revel in the audacity with which the kids concoct improbable excuses for their delinquency (“an antelope got in my path”) and the inventive wit of their insults (one teacher is described as “Trump crossed with van Gogh”). Played mostly by nonprofessional actors, the students enliven this ensemble movie with their charm and comic timing, while Marsaud and Idir avoid sentimentalism with a bracing dose of lived-in realism.
Multiple times while watching “Captains of Zaatari,” I forgot that it was a documentary; the film’s wondrous, stylized direction — and the intimacy it elicits from its subjects — makes it feel like a fable. Ali El Arabi’s feature follows two teenagers, Fawzi and Mahmoud, who live in Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Their displacement has robbed them of many things — their homes, their education, their family members — but not their love of soccer. The sport becomes the locus of their hopes when an initiative called “Syrian Dream” gives them the chance to travel to Qatar and compete in an international under-17 tournament.
Tracing Fawzi and Mahmoud’s journey from their camp to Qatar and back, El Arabi’s film doesn’t offer much exposition on the refugees’ predicament. Instead, it sweeps us up in their emotions — their anticipation, grit, disappointments — with snippets of their heart-to-heart conversations and golden-lit close-ups of their faces. At times the documentary unfolds like a sports drama, with high-octane scenes from the tournament, but, at its core, “Captains of Zaatari” is about the brotherly bond between Fawzi and Mahmoud. Rather than the aggression or competitiveness one might expect from teenage athletes, the two boys are tender with one another and grateful to be able to live their modest dreams together.
This coming-of-age — or rather, coming-of-rage — drama by the Uruguayan director Lucia Garibaldi ripples with the twin threats of adolescent desire and oceanic danger. We first meet the tomboyish 14-year-old Rosina (Romina Bentancur) as she runs defiantly into the sea, her father chasing after her. She searches the water with her gaze, and just as she reluctantly turns away, a shark fin appears among the waves.
Our heroine lives in a small seaside town, where the sharks’ arrival bodes ill for the local fishing community. Rosina’s growing fixation on the sharks mirrors her slow-burning obsession with Joselo (Federico Morosini), a lecherous young man working for her father who invites her for a tryst in his garage.
“The Sharks” is about predators and prey (of various stripes), though the balance between the two shifts unpredictably in this hypnotic, ever-surprising film. There’s neither moralism nor sensationalism in Garibaldi’s approach to the perilous thrills of female sexuality. Instead, her camera quietly and keenly observes her young protagonist, allowing the film’s power tussles to play out on her inscrutable, sunburned face.
‘The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet’
This Argentine tragicomedy comprises a string of black-and-white vignettes that are deceptive in their simplicity and profound in their absurdity. The title of Ana Katz’s feature comes from the first two vignettes, in which Sebas, a 30-something illustrator in Buenos Aires, is berated by his neighbors about his dog’s constant whining, then forced to quit his job when he insists on bringing the dog to work.
After a strange and tragic twist — depicted beautifully in an illustrated interlude — the film jumps through a series of episodes from Sebas’s life over the years, including his stint at a farming cooperative, his mother’s wedding and his own romance and eventual fatherhood. Sebas’s varying hairstyles become our markers for the passage of time, though the actor, Daniel Katz, maintains an endearing stoicism throughout — a kind of humble commitment to taking on whatever life throws at him.
In one of the final vignettes, Sebas and his family navigate a dystopian Buenos Aires where the air is only breathable up to four feet above the ground. The rich walk around wearing bubble-shaped oxygen containers; the poor crouch and crawl on the floor. Here, “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet” emerges as a clever (and timely) meditation on the resilience of humans in a world that seems forever on the verge of disaster, whether capitalistic or environmental.
‘Striding Into the Wind’
This Chinese dramedy is perched somewhere between the genre-inflected social portraits of Jia Zhangke and the ennui-laden slacker cinema of Richard Linklater. Wei Shujun’s autobiographical feature debut follows the lackadaisical adventures of Kun (Zhou You), a stylish, mullet-wearing loafer who’s studying to be a sound recordist at a Beijing film school. Both sweetly sincere and incorruptibly mischievous, Kun and his boom-operator friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai) goof off in class and spend their free time driving around in Kun’s rickety jeep, trying to make a quick buck. Their schemes include enabling the deluded musical aspirations of a wealthy construction mogul and secretly selling the exam papers of Kun’s mom, a schoolteacher.
In the midst of all these high jinks, the two try to make art like their heroes — Hong Sangsoo and Wong Kar-wai are referenced, among others — as they assist a pretentious classmate with his thesis film. A self-reflexive meditation on cinephilia, Wei’s freewheeling movie feels breezy and naturalistic yet precisely composed. Each frame bursts with sociocultural details — from the U.S. map sticker on Kun’s jeep to the Chinese hip-hop the characters rap along to on their drives — that clue us into the local moorings and global ambitions of a new generation of middle-class Chinese youth.