The Class is a big deal, and not merely because it was the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A clever and charming pseudo-documentary, it gets inside one classroom of 30 or so 14-year-olds in a tough part of Paris over the course of a year. Structurally, it’s similar to Être et avoir, the actual documentary by Nicholas Philibert which was made in a tiny rural French school. But that was released in 2002. We’ve all grown up since then.

There are a few French cultural subtleties that it helps to know before seeing the film. As opposed to most other countries, teachers in France are managed nationally, not regionally. So once a teacher qualifies, they are given the least desirable jobs in the whole country from which to work their way up. Here in the UK, we know where the sink schools are in our council. Imagine if every school in your area was considered a sink school – and the teachers were the least qualified or competent nationally. These are the schools in the working-class parts and suburbs of Paris, which are very ethnically mixed. In France that ethnic mix is seen as nothing more than a coincidence. But the French are notoriously gun-shy at facing up to issues of race; under the principles of liberté and egalité, race is officially unimportant.

By setting his film in an inner-city school, director Laurent Cantet is making a political statement. But The Class is based on a muckraking book by Françoiis Bégaudeau, who plays a version of himself in his first acting role. The kids, aged 14 or so, all attended the real school in Paris where the film is set, and the movie was made through workshops and guided improvisations around a loosely structured script. Several cameras ran at all times, so there’s an enveloping sense of being in the middle of a real classroom, with secret texting, chewing on pens, balancing on chairs, and general kid-level slices of life all around.

Cantet very subtly builds a plot almost without letting the audience realise what has been going on. The focus is divided among the different kids, who are Malian, Turkish, Chinese, Moroccan, Guadeloupean and French, among other nationalities. A few seize the limelight for themselves, namely moody Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), cheeky Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and troubled Souleymane (Franck Keita). François has taught French for four years and knows some of them already; there’s very little traditional action. In this film, it’s all about the conversational interactions and the language. The kids attempt to absorb his teachings about grammar, resist his idea that he should get to know them better, and, at one stage, goad him into losing his temper. In French there is a higher tolerance for low-level profanity, but it’s still startling to hear it coming from the mouth of a teacher. The subtitles do a good job of translating these nuances. This is especially important as two of the most serious incidents turn on people’s differing interpretations of something. What’s the difference between ‘you were like two skanks’ and ‘you were two skanks’? Is it a silly misunderstanding, or an insult worth fighting over? I was especially moved by the sad little moment at the end, where one of the quieter girls seeks reassurance from François, which she does not quite get.

Most of the audience for The Class won’t have been in a class full of teenagers since they were teenagers themselves. The reenactment of the ebb and flow of young friendships, the social politics of a crowded classroom, and the power of the written word are achievements which can be appreciated worldwide. But there are elements of this movie that could only have been made in France – the student reps on the grading committee, for example, or the teachers’ unanimous agreement in the staffroom that a parent’s potential deportation is something to fight against. However there’s also one teacher’s furious rant about his students that’s quite upsetting in its vitriol, and the unpleasant and uncomfortable fact that the students identified as troublemakers are the blackest kids in the room. All the teachers are white; the only staff of colour are specifically identified as cleaners. When an international smash like Amélie can show a Paris with no black faces, is it a step forward that black characters are so fully integrated into the story? Or should there have been more thought in preventing casual stereotyping?

The Palme d’Or – the first awarded to a French film in 21 years – is an acknowledgement that the face of France has changed permanently. What started with Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine is becoming an overdue cinematic examination of how multiculturalism is shaping France. Cantet’s addition to the canon reminds all of us that kids are just kids, and every last one of them deserves a fair chance. Whether or not they currently can in France is another argument, but The Class, and its critical reception, proves the playing field certainly is changing.

The Class (Entre les murs) opens in the Netherlands on 29/11 and Russia on 4/12. It has been nominated as France’s entry to the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009.