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With: Philippe Torreton, Maria Pitarresi, Nadia Kaci, Véronique Ataly, Nathalie Bécue
Written by: Dominique Sampiero, Tiffany Tavernier, Bertrand Tavernier
Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 117
Date: 02/16/1999

It All Starts Today (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Life Lessons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

French director Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de torchon, A Sunday in the Country, and Round Midnight,) began his career, like Francois Truffaut, as a film reviewer, though Tavernier worked for a rival publication and often challenged Truffaut on his theories and ideas. Now Tavernier delivers a new film, It All Starts Today, that feels suspiciously like one of Truffaut's best works, the sweet and profound Small Change (1976). Small Change looked at the daily trials and tribulations of a group of school children, and especially one troublemaker whom we learn has been abused by his parents. It All Starts Today instead focuses on a teacher at a school not unlike Truffaut's. And though the kids in Tavernier's school show their own personalities, they are not the center of attention.

Kindergarten director Daniel Lefebvre, appealingly played by Philippe Torreton, comes to work each day looking haggard, his wits tested to their last trickle. And yet, every day he faces some new kind of disaster: vandals tear up the school, kids are beaten by their parents, other kids go hungry, and still other kids spend the freezing winter with no heat in their homes. Lefebvre tries his best to work within the constricting laws and ineffectual system to set things right. Occasionally, city workers drop by the school to either take inventory or to help. Sometimes they do help, and other times they just disappear. In the end, Lefebvre and his sculptor girlfriend Valeria (the distractingly beautiful Maria Pitarresi) attempt to decorate the school with bright colors and interesting props, doing what they can to simply brighten the children's days.

Tavernier gives the picture a straightforward, gritty look with plenty of hand-held cameras and a documentary-like objectivity. We never see anyone's point of view outside their dealings with Lefebvre. As a result, the bureaucrats never become real characters. We only see them with their professional faces on, performing their little tricks for the director and the teachers.

Though this may seem like a one-sided view, it actually saves the production from becoming too soap-boxy and preachy, like Steven Soderbergh's recent Traffic. Instead it becomes a study of the teacher himself and his struggles, both at work and at home. (He has difficulty getting along with his girlfriend's son, the product of a former relationship.) The fact that he works at a troubled school seems incidental. We worry more about how he will deal with the problems, rather than how the problems will be dealt with. Tavernier is clearly moved by this material, and that's great, but his passion sometimes makes It All Starts Today awfully heavy. It's a difficult trick to pull off this kind of story with the light touch Truffaut gave to Small Change. But Tavernier is a professional, and his doses of gravity and humanity give him a passing grade.

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