From its plot, you’d think that Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today would be a chore. The tale of an elementary school headmaster’s struggle to obtain social services in a mining town blighted by economic disaster could have been the sort of well-intentioned but stultifying liberal social drama you feel obligated to endure once a year, just like a dental checkup.
That Tavernier has fashioned a light and modestly inspiring film from such dour material is a small miracle. It’s a model of politically engaged cinema, offering a clear-eyed view of a social problem without pretending to have any easy solutions.
Tavernier and his co-scenarists (Tiffany Tavernier and Dominique Sampiero) understand that everyday political struggle can be made dramatically compelling by focusing on the details. We get no grand statements of principle or sweeping revolutionary gestures. This is instead a film about incremental progress in the face of collapse, the sorts of tiny victories that serve mainly as a hedge against despair.
Philippe Torreton plays Daniel, a kindergarten teacher and the chief administrator of a financially strapped school. His students bear the brunt of the town’s 34% unemployment, coming to school hungry and sick. Some are neglected by parents overcome with depression; others are beaten.
Daniel is fiercely dedicated to his school. He takes it personally when overworked social workers fail to check up on his students and launches a battle against the city bureaucracy. Though he’s a gifted teacher (his classroom scenes are delightful) he’s a belligerent, ineffective leader, irritating all his potential allies.
Tavernier dodges the stodgy, moralizing piety that undermines most political films by stressing Daniel’s testiness. He’s so focused on the struggles at work that he’s unable to commit himself fully to Valeria (Maria Pitarresi), the woman he lives with. For all his skill with children, he has a terrible relationship with Valeria’s son Remi (Lambert Marchal) and it’s even worse with his father, an embittered and violent ex-miner. We see him at his best only in the classroom, where his empathy for his students overwhelms his bad temper.
While the scenes from Daniel’s family life help the film avoid sentimentality, they’re also a bit unrealized. The performances are excellent (Pitarresi’s scenes with Marchal are outstanding) but the characters aren’t given enough screen time to fully register. They’re too obviously devices, a means of helping us understand Daniel. The film is weakest when it deals with his parents. They are trotted out for a few perfunctory scenes designed to let us glimpse the dysfunction that drove Daniel to teaching. In a film that so resolutely avoids simplifying its politics, this sort of easy equation of childhood trauma to adult conviction seems awfully simplistic.
Poised between muckraking and poetic realism, It All Starts Today is, for all its faults, a remarkable film. Like the work it most resembles – Alain Tanner’s 1975 Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 – it leavens its despondent vision of France’s economic realities with hope. Both films turn on images of children caught up in the pleasure of learning. Never saccharine, these moments ground Tavernier’s political arguments. There’s none of the comfort that a Hollywood film’s blandly reassuring inspiration might provide. Instead, we leave the theater energized, having seen what’s really at stake in these struggles.