Bertrand Tavernier's superb "It All Starts Today" is set in a small mining town in northern France, but it could just as easily be taking place in America's Rust Belt. The mines have closed, leaving much of the population unemployed, and its mayor trying to promote its slag heaps into tourist attractions.
This means that the town's kindergarten, part of France's national preschool educational system, already minimally funded, is heavily strained, with parents leaving their young children all day as they search for work. Some cannot afford even the minimal financial contribution expected; in some dire instances they are unable to send off their youngsters with lunch.
Attempting to meet the day-to-day, indeed moment-to-moment, challenge of keeping this kindergarten up and running is the dynamic and creative Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton). Supply shortages and broken-down plumbing confront Daniel regularly as he attempts to stimulate the imaginations of the very young as he teaches and serves as principal and inspiration to an admirably dedicated staff. Given the school's community, it is impossible for him and his colleagues to stick to the school room and the playground. "It All Starts Today" is inspired by the experiences of Tavernier's son-in-law Dominique Sampiero, who collaborated with his wife Tiffany and her father on the script.
The film does a terrific job of showing the toll exacted by economic hardship upon a hard-pressed town's youngest inhabitants in the form of malnutrition, abuse and myriad health, developmental and behavioral problems. For 25 years Tavernier has sustained an illustrious career as a filmmaker of passionate commitment, an artist who is never afraid to speak out but who could never be labeled a message director. His films grow out of his characters' emotions, beliefs and drives, and they tend to range wide and deep.
Thus Daniel's fervent commitment to the children drives him to step over the line continually into the province of the social worker, which brings him into fiery conflict with a frequently hidebound, entrenched and self-serving government bureaucracy. The key issue is a family that has been without heat for half a year, sending the despairing mother to drink as her truck driver/crane operator husband must constantly go abroad for whatever short-term jobs he is able to land. Daniel and his colleagues, plus a young novice social worker (Nadia Kaci), struggle mightily to prevent the family from being strangled to death in red tape.
Although there is real pain and suffering in "It All Starts Today," it is too impassioned, too brisk and too embracing of life and human foibles to be depressing. It also tells another story, that of Daniel's evolving relationship with his beautiful lover Valeria (Maria Pitarresi), a sculptor who supports herself as a waitress, and with her son (Lambert Marchal), who never knew his actual father but has trouble accepting Daniel as a parent. Daniel, a native to the town, in turn is coping with his aged parents; his father, a brutal, dour man, was a miner. Daniel is also a poet, and his musings are heard on the soundtrack, a gentle, lyrical counterpart to the often harsh environment depicted on the screen.
Daniel is a life force, and to play him Tavernier turned to the Comedie Francaise's Torreton, who also starred in the director's "L.627," "Fresh Bait" and "Captain Conan." Torreton's Daniel has boundless enthusiasm and energy, but he is unafraid to show the man as being somewhat full of himself. Torreton clearly understands that Daniel would have to have a sizable ego to tackle a job that requires him to try to succeed against all odds.
Yet Daniel is a warm, immensely appealing man, aware that taking responsibility means risking making mistakes and owning up to them when he does. Torreton never flags and simply becomes Daniel, and Tavernier surrounds him with an array of formidable supporting players, typical of the director. "It All Starts Today" glows, as do all Tavernier films. It's another gem in an ever-lengthening string of accomplishments from one of the world's major filmmakers.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
'It All Starts Today'
Philippe Torreton: Daniel
Maria Pitarresi: Valeria
Nadia Kaci: Samia
Lambert Marchal: Remi
An Independent Artists release of an Alain Sarde and Frederic Bourboulon presentation of a Les Films Alain Sarde-Little Bear-TFI Films co-production. Director Bertrand Tavernier. Screenplay Dominique Sampiero, Tiffany Tavernier, Bertrand Tavernier. Cinematographer Alain Choquart. Editor Sophie Brunet. Music Louis Sclavis. Costumes Marpessa Djian. Art director Thierry Francois. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
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