It All Starts Today

With its never-ending battery of sobering facts and figures about unemployment, health care, poverty, and the other social ills affecting a crumbling industrial town in northern France, Bertrand Tavernier's It All Starts Today can only plead guilty to charges of didacticism. At times, its feature-length editorial on the problems facing beleaguered, underpaid kindergarten teachers is barely disguised as melodrama; statistics come out of school council meetings, casual conversation, and even a couple of monologues that seem directed straight toward the audience. Usually Samuel Goldwyn's famous adage, "If you want to send a message, try Western Union," applies, but It All Starts Today is an inspired lecture delivered by a fiery orator, shot through with urgency, righteousness, and stirring compassion. Returning to a contemporary setting after his exceptional WWI drama Capitaine Conan, Tavernier (A Sunday In The Country, 'Round Midnight) and Conan's intense lead actor Philippe Torreton return to the trenches, where the average workday is a lesson in controlled chaos. Torreton plays a dedicated teacher and principal at a junior school in a mining region best known as the setting for Émile Zola's Germinal. Fittingly, it now suffers from a staggering 34% unemployment rate. The residual symptoms of economic depression on that scale—alcoholism, abuse, poor living conditions, high crime, no health-care options—have a profound impact on the students, turning teachers into part-time social workers. (It's telling that many of the kids are named after characters on daytime soaps like The Young And The Restless.) A few narrative threads dangle over the course of a school year, most notably the sad case of a neglectful, alcoholic mother raising a 5-year-old girl and an infant in a filthy apartment without power or heat. But Tavernier leaves many of the problems unresolved, and in his mind, they're real and need to be addressed, preferably while the print is still wet from the lab. Brilliantly photographed with Steadicams charging purposefully into the fray, It All Starts Today echoes François Truffaut's Small Change in its concern for children's issues and superb orchestration of dozens of young non-actors. But most of all, it's a rousing piece of agitprop, a call to arms that convinces with passionate argument and deep conviction.

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