By: Addison Wylie
Following a recent trend of year-in-the-life-of-a-high-schooler documentaries, School of Babel marks the movement’s first forgettable entry. It serves a purpose and the events in Julie Bertuccelli’s doc will undoubtably affect the featured students, but the impact on the audience is muted by vacant direction and a slow pace.
In Paris at La Grange-aux-Belles secondary school, a class of diverse teens learn the French language while inhabiting the new culture. It’s always so refreshing to see a doc capture realness amongst a curious class. Each student is different in their own ways and have traveled from different parts of the word, yet they have no problem conversing and listening to everyone’s views no matter how large the contrast is.
Bertuccelli got very lucky with this class of amiable kids. They all have their own distinct voice that is heard openly throughout School of Babel, and they’re all a pleasure to watch. Even though the doc isn’t particularly engaging, you grow attached to these students strictly because of how approachable everyone is.
Anyone could’ve made School of Babel, which is why the film itself doesn’t feel special. Instead of forming a relationship with her subjects, Bertuccelli positions the camera during personal meetings and in-class discussions and lets the footage roll on in. For all we know, she could’ve set up a few cameras, pressed “record” on all of them, and left the room until recess. The documentarian lets teacher Brigitte Cervoni do all the investigating, while Bertuccelli sits back and relaxes. Isn’t this a form of cheating as a filmmaker?
The film’s transitioning is pretty choppy too. There are no segues between parent-teacher appointments and the class activities. She lets each event play itself completely out and then crashes into another. A round of show-and-tell feels like forever since the filmmaker is too shy to edit around the dead air. I’ve heard of giving movie goers a fly-on-the-wall experience, but this drowsy approach doesn’t do justice.
I didn’t know a documentary cut from the same cloth as Fame High, If You Build It, and I Learn America could stumble in the ways School of Babel does. The end product is disappointing and only measly tolerable until its sluggish runtime starts deducting points.
Visit the official TIFF Kids webpage here!
Visit the official TIFF webpage here!
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