At first glance, It All Starts Today is heavyhanded and preachy. Director Bertrand Tavernier is not afraid to take sides in this tempest-in-a-teapot drama about a kindergarten in a financially strapped French city.
But a second look reveals an impeccably tight movie where every scene serves the story and “bad guy” bureaucrats aren’t such caricatures after all.
More Than a Teacher
Daniel Levebvre (Philippe Torreton) teaches kindergarten at the Lagrange school. Aside from his duties as a teacher and as director of the school, he is occasionally called upon to give special attention to a child.
Case in point is Laetitia (Kelly Mercier), whose mother is drunk when she comes to pick her up. When one of the staff members approaches, Laetitia’s mom stumbles away, ashamed, leaving not only Laetitia, but a baby in a carriage.
Social Services won’t help Mr. Levebvre with Laetitia and her infant brother. They can’t do anything, and they aren’t allowed to give Levebvre the names or numbers of any of her relatives. They tell him to call the police, then they hang up on him. Instead of calling the cops, Lefebvre personally drives the girl home, getting directions from the brave kindergartner.
Politics and Power
From this incident comes the political fight between Social Services and the Lagrange school. Social Services looks bad because they did nothing to help Laetitia, and Lefebvre seemed to be rubbing it in when he drove the children home himself. So to save face, Social Services wants to rebuke Lefebvre and the Lagrange school for breaking the rules.
Although this political fight gives the movie its arc, the film’s most prevalent conflict is simply Lefebvre’s hectic day-to-day schedule. When children are near, they take his attention. When he can, he helps the teachers, the parents, his girlfriend, and her young teenaged son. Being put on the defensive by Social Services is just one more thrust he has to parry.
Finding an Audience
It All Starts Today doesn’t have a broad appeal. The trials of a kindergarten teacher in France are hardly a match for Spider-Man and Attack of the Clones. And because of its obvious message: “social services need more money,” It All Starts Today may alienate apolitical or activist conservative audiences.
On the other side of that coin, socially active audiences may use It All Starts Today as a rallying point, seeing only the message and missing any of Tavernier’s artistry and craft.
That leaves a small subset of film lovers, then, who may care that It All Starts Today is a well written, well directed, expertly edited movie.
Many of the scenes take place in a classroom full of kids, so Torreton has to be more than just an actor, he must actually become a teacher. To both his credit and the director’s, the kids follow Torreton’s lead. He actually feels like a kindergarten teacher with 12 years experience. He can have a serious conversation with a teacher or a parent, but the moment a child needs his attention, he shifts his approach to something suitable for a young pupil. Whether Torreton is “acting” or is simply tapping into his own paternal instincts doesn’t matter. What matters is that he sells the role on film.
Tavernier weaves together several stories into a seamless flow of life. The fight between the school and Social Services is only the broadest story. There are also subplots involving Laetitia’s family, Lefebvre’s girlfriend Valeria (Maria Pitarresi), his relationship with his “stepson” Remi (Lambert Marchal), a burglary at the school, and plans for the future at Lagrange.
In fact, it is the tightness of this weave that makes a second viewing of It All Starts Today even better than the first. Scenes that at first seemed random or mere texture turn out to be meaningful and relevant to one of the film’s many stories.
As an example of the weave, Lefebvre slaps Remi (his girlfriend’s son) for stealing and destroying something belonging to him. The slap is Lefebvre’s assertion of paternal power over Remi, even though the legal bonds of family don’t exist yet. Remi is resentful at being hit by a non-relative, and Lefebvre is regretful for striking a child.
In a later scene, in another thread, Remi asks his mom about his father, whom he has never met. Valeria cannot say anything nice about him. Still later and in yet another thread, Remi witnesses a conversation in his mom’s workshop, in which Lefebvre is telling her about his own father’s stroke. Again, Valeria has nothing nice to say.
All three scenes come from different storylines. It’s easy to watch them all and never connect them. But if you do connect them — Remi and Lefebvre both having fathers Valerie dislikes — they explain a fourth scene, one in which Remi’s resentment has faded and he tries to bridge the gap between himself and Lefebvre.
The audience for It All Starts Today may be small and narrow. Tavernier’s choice of subject matter practically guarantees limited appeal. Some who watch the movie may find it heavyhanded and preachy. Again, Tavernier must live with his decision to choose sides.
Nevertheless, It All Starts Today is a carefully crafted movie, as revealed by a close examination. Receptive audiences can appreciate and enjoy It All Starts Today again and again.