Brutal bullying catalyzes a high school massacre in the harrowing teen drama "The Class."

Brutal bullying catalyzes a high school massacre in the harrowing teen drama “The Class.” Provocative, naturalistic pic should put Estonian helmer Ilmar Raag on the radar of top industry brass. Like “Elephant,” it’s inspired by the Columbine tragedy, but unlike Gus Van Sant’s film, it posits a rationale for the violence. More controversially, it puts auds in the uncomfortable position of wanting the bullies severely punished. Euro arthouse play is assured, with sale of remake rights a possibility. Stateside success is less likely due to American sensitivity to the topic, particularly the way Raag frames the inevitability of the finale.

Well-made pic perfectly captures the fraught world of public high school, from nasty student cliques to well-meaning but oblivious teachers. Parental figures, too, are clueless. Debuting writer-director Raag workshopped the storyline with the 15 main members of his nonpro teen cast and credits them with helping achieve the right tone.

Tale unfolds from the p.o.v. of two ostracized students. Main victim is 16-year-old Joosep (Part Usuberg), whose hunched shoulders and deer-in-the-headlights stare indicate he’s long been the butt of his classmates’ taunting. Confident, good-looking Kaspar (Vallo Kirs), on the other hand, moves from being one of Joosep’s tormentors to serving as his protector.

Country lad Kaspar is new to the school, and at first just wants to fit in. Although the popular kids don’t invite him to their parties, he begins a tentative relationship with pretty blonde Thea (Paula Solvak).

When the boys push the naked Joosep into the girls’ changing room and hold the door shut, Kaspar interrupts the proceedings at Thea’s request. His intervention doesn’t go down well with Anders (Lauri Pedaja), the class’ alpha male, who also covets Thea’s attention and contrives to have the others shun Kaspar as well.

The more Kaspar feels honor-bound to protect Joosep, the more the others bedevil him. Over the course of a week, Joosep suffers increasingly severe humiliations. By the time Anders’ gang devises its ultimate torture, viewers are definitely rooting for the beleaguered boys to take revenge. Sadly, extreme violence is the only route they consider.

The entire cast of young thesps is convincing. Kristjan-Jaak Nuudi’s eye-catching camerawork and Tambet Tasuja’s at times MTV-like cutting match their high-energy perfs.

When it was released earlier this year, pic rose to second place at the Estonian box office. In Karlovy Vary, it nabbed the Europa Cinemas Label prize, which supports European distribution.

The Class

Estonia

Production

An Amrion presentation, in association with Estonian Television, with the participation of the Estonian Film Foundation, Estonian Cultural Endowment. (International sales: NonStop Sales, Stockholm.) Produced by Riina Sildos. Executive producer, Kaspar Kaljas. Directed, written by Ilmar Raag.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Kristjan-Jaak Nuudi; editor, Tambet Tasuja; music, Timo Steiner, Paul Oja, Part Usuberg, Martin "Eskimo" Kallasvee; art director, Eva-Maria Gramakovski; costume designer, Agne Talu; sound (Dolby Digital), Kristian Miilen. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (East of the West), June 30, 2007. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Vallo Kirs, Part Usuberg, Lauri Pedaja, Paula Solvak, Mikk Magi.

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