Imagine a cruel and contemporary flip of Dead Poets Society, and you’ll start scratching at the dark heart of the French thriller School’s Out. Its story centers on Pierre (Laurence Lafitte), a dashing and caring substitute teacher whose tasked with ushering a class of highly intelligent teens through the trauma of witnessing their former teacher’s in-class suicide attempt. But this is no melodrama with tearful confessions and “O Captain! My Captain!” exaltations. The chillingly stoic students aren’t interested in Pierre’s concerns, even when he tries to rescue them from violent outbursts by their peers. Confounded, compelled, and a bit freaked out, this suspicious substitute begins to stalk the class’s central clique, and slowly uncovers these teens’ disturbing secrets.
Directed by Sébastien Marnier, School’s Out is one part mystery, one part dark comedy. As Pierre follows Apolline (LuÃ na Bajrami) and her little cult of anarchist friends, he’s disturbed by their fascination in devastation, pollution, and violence. He begins to suspect that their teacher’s suicide attempt wasn’t so random, and that these teens have something heinous planned for the fast-approaching graduation weekend. But when he tries to share his concerns, his fellow teachers think he’s paranoid, bored, and looking for something exciting. Even the movie mocks his fear, giving Apolline and her crew sneering remarks that spark barks of audience laughter at our terrorized hero’s expense. But something’s going on here. What’s with the phone calls in the middle of the night? Why is Brice often covered in bruises? What’s with the DVDs the kids have buried in an abandoned lot?
The blend of suspense and spiked humor is slippery and strange. You’re never quite sure where to plant your feet in this twisted thriller. Yet for all its surprises, School’s Out’s most haunting moments are the ones based in a quiet, all-too-common reality. A screeching alarm rips through the classroom’s stillness. Pierre looks—well—alarmed. He asks if it’s a fire drill. His class can barely hold their frustration with his ignorance. It’s an active shooter drill. Dispassionately, they all gather their things and file to the wall closest to the classroom door, folding their knees up to their chests. They block the door with their bodies, and stare blankly as the alarm blares. Unprepared, Pierre joins them, only to be chastised. He needs to clear away his things so the terrorist would assume the classroom is empty if they looked through the door’s window. And put your cellphone on airplane mode. You wouldn’t want an ill-timed ring to signal your location to a merciless mass shooter.
This is the crux of School’s Out, a generational divide between those who grew up with the blissful ignorance of life-shattering trauma that could come strolling into your classroom with an automatic weapon, and Generation Z, the Stoneman Douglas generation who have to face this horrible uncertainty school day after school day, all too aware of how useless their guardians are in protecting them. Pierre’s class believes he’s already failed them. And their cold stares send chills that’ll follow you out of the theater.
Unnerving, provocative, and fiercely contemporary, School’s Out is a political and existential thriller that’s journey is hypnotic, and that’s final destination is perfectly terrifying.
School’s Out made its North American Premiere at Fantastic Fest.