The subgenre of “ambitious outsider teacher who is determined to inspire a ragtag group of disenchanted students” is well-worn, to put it mildly. Yet when the formula works its works well. Enter Casablanca Beats, written (with the collaboration of Maryam Touzani) and directed by Nabil Ayouch. It concerns Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper with a gig at the local arts center in Casablanca. He teaches hip-hop to a diverse group of underprivileged students, bonding them together in the process. Each student is forced to confront repressive traditions in Morocco and challenge the status quo, debating the lengths to which they will rebel—be it through their lyrics, dress, or otherwise.

“Young as I am I feel like an old man / I see the future as black as my skin,” raps Ismail (Ismail Adouab), while Amina (Amina Kannan) is pulled out of class after her conservative parents learn that they are being taught hip-hop. “She comes home evenings with political lyrics,” her mother says woefully. Scenes of classroom debate are often bookended by musical numbers. These sequences energize the whole of the film. Young actress Zineb Boujemaa’s dance about 45 minutes in proves a particular standout. A later, energetic dance battle also comes to mind.

Basbousi, a working musician known as Bawss, has a good look that Ayouch makes the most of. He challenges his students to challenge each other, watching intently as they discuss the issues amongst themselves and come to their own conclusions. He’ll prompt them when needed (“Many things in this country don’t work,” he begins at one point) but they quickly get fired up and question each other’s ideologies.

Where Casablanca Beats falters a bit is in its propulsion. There is no real central conflict driving our teacher. Yes, he’s allowing his students to think more independently and yes that emerges as an obvious rift for many of them and their more traditional families. But there is nothing pushing us from one scene to the next. No specific goal, no ticking clock, no clear finish line outside of a somewhat ill-defined concert in the third act. This writer will fully admit to allowing the contours of this specific subgenre to affect his expectations, but the criticism remains.

Yet Ayouch’s aesthetic is natural, the performances he gets from his actors true. It’s no small feat to get kids acting like kids onscreen. The musical breaks and classroom discussions are both engaging and provocative. One may recall staples like School Daze or Dead Poets Society in different moments, which is meant more as a compliment than some reductive comparison. Casablanca Beats wears its heart on its sleeve and screams its themes into the world. Thankfully, this is the right avenue for that.

Casablanca Beats is now in theaters.

Grade: B

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