Sebastien Marnier’s School’s Out, based on the novel of the same name by Christophe Duffose and co-written with Elise Griffon, explores the tense relationship between a teacher and a group of highly intelligent, detached students. While the description might be reminiscent of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, it swings the opposite way into a mystery-thriller, questioning the responsibility of adults towards children and tackling the question of whether the future generation wish to inherit the earth.
In the peak of a heatwave somewhere in the French countryside, Pierre (Laurent Lafiette) becomes the substitute teacher for a class of gifted students after their teacher jumps to his suicide in the middle of a lesson. Straight away, Pierre is made aware of 6 students in the class who are particularly apathetic and only hang around with each other; stern Apolline (Luàna Bajrami) immediately puts Pierre in his place by asking him in front of the cohort why he is still a substitute teacher at 40 and cold Dmitri (Victor Bonnel) constantly shoots down his ideas. The students come to dislike Pierre’s hands-on approach, particularly as no other teacher seems to care about them outside of their grades.
Pierre follows the group to a quarry where they hang out and witnesses them beating each other then holding hands in a cult-like initiation. They also bury a box filled with DVDs that Pierre takes home to watch; they are montages of the effects humans have on the world, including climate change and the slaughter of animals, and members of the group proclaiming their hopelessness for the future they are set to inherit. After receiving prank phone calls constantly and unable to convince anyone else about the strangeness of his students, Pierre becomes increasingly paranoid and his determination to figure out what the kids are doing takes over.
As with most thrillers, there is a strong building of the mystery in the first half of the film, especially as the children display a commanding presence beyond their age and the entire school’s environment is unsettling, complimented by lingering wide shots and empty space. Lafitte’s performance is particularly strong as he unravels, changing from a self assured authority figure to someone who has no control over his professional or personal life; his subtle relationship with his former lover, who has recently had a child, disintegrates and he quietly pines over Eric as he finds himself isolated. However, the second half of the film becomes a lot looser in structure and the students become creepy caricatures with none of them developing individual traits outside ringleaders Apolline and Dmitri. Inserts of the DVD montages are peppered throughout the second act with no new information and fail to move the story ahead.
The entire film is told from the perspective of Pierre, which is beneficial when building the suspense and distrust of the children, but makes it difficult to understand what has caused their apathy and their determination to carry out their extreme plans. Perhaps this lack of understanding fits the theme of adults not connecting with the youth but, as a result, the third act falls shorts. As a result, the film suffers and the suspense it builds unfortunately fizzles away.
Watch the trailer here: