Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It All Starts Today got a very limited theatrical release in the United States; I only
asked to review the DVD on the basis of its being directed by Bertrand Tavernier, someone from whom I
have yet to see an uninteresting film. Probably pegged as too specifically
French for American audiences, the film affected me much more than recent Hollywood attempts to describe
the problems of teachers.
Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) is a teacher and director at a preschool in
a cold and dull Northern French town with a depressed economy. Many of his students come to school
unfed and sick. Frustrated and outraged at the indifference of the so-called social services locally
available, he wavers between quitting, and herculean personal efforts to take up the slack. Rough
treatment of the local social workers alienates some but finds him a friend in Samia Damouni (Nadia
Kaci), who is equally committed; his girlfriend Valeria (Maria Pitarresi) gives him advice, some
good, some bad. With no rewards, and resistance from both his superiors and some of the parents, Daniel
has to find his inspiration where he can.
Nobody seems to worry about teachers, except when it comes to arranging advantages for their own
children. Society's basic abandonment
of education and social services in general is reflected in school systems run like petty fiefdoms
of privilege and power, where adminstrators outnumber teachers. In LA, executives make expensive fact-finding
trips to foreign countries.
Sensitive filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, writing with his daughter Tiffany, has made an almost perfect
film about the real job of teaching. Real teaching isn't considered interesting, which is
the probable reason politicians find education easy to ignore - our schools languish, while yet another
President spends millions to find teachers to go on the space shuttle for P.R. propaganda.
Reasonable facsimilies of teachers in movies are rare. 'Inspirational' American movies stem from
some well-meaning templates like To Sir, With Love and Up The Down Staircase from
quite a ways back, but have deteriorated greatly. If a movie about a teacher gets made, it will be a
star vehicle, where the confused teacher takes on a class of disadvantaged high school students,
all of whom are glamorous young actors pretending to be adolescents. There's usually some kind of
stunted romance, but the teacher will, without fail, take an interest in a specific
student and break all the rules to help them personally. I'm thinking of other titles too, but this year's
offender is The Emperor's Club. It has the gall to uphold the idea that turning the sons of the
privileged rich into the future's privileged rich is the greatest of values.
Until this picture, the best film I'd seen about teaching was Stand and Deliver.
It All Starts Today plays as if it were made by pre-school teachers. Their problems are
personal, ordinary, and sometimes sordid, and there's no glamour involved. No moral
lessons are learned. The teachers are not the 'stars' of the school. The staff of
Daniel's tiny preschool are all caring teachers trying to maintain a positive learning atmosphere against
overwhelming odds, and soldiering on in the face of failure.
As any American teacher will tell you, the problems Daniel faces have nothing to do with teaching.
Daniel has a hard time getting some parents to care enough to send their kids to school. When there's
no money for food, the teachers feed the kids themselves out of their own pockets; Samia's job
involves confronting parents who are literally allowing their children to starve. The
shame and humiliation of unemployment makes communication difficult. When families crumble, the
teachers and social workers see it first.
The job might be bearable if the teachers received any assistance from their own administrators. Daniel's
cries for help are ignored or rebuffed by the local authorities. The social services department
hangs up when he calls for aid, and the local politician uses 'cooperative' meetings to personally
Disincentives multiply. Daniel is like a soldier in the trenches, used an abused by the generals back
at headquarters. His superior gives him a poor job evaluation, to please the bureacrats who
consider him a troublemaker. He finds ways to mark Daniel down on abstract points of teaching. For trying
to improve things, the reward is a message of censure and insult: 'Stop rocking the boat, stop caring'.
Daniel's brother encourages him to quit and go
into business together. His reasonably well-appointed school is trashed by vandals, throwing the
staff into despair. He later finds out
that his girlfriend's son let them in. And a murder-suicide forces Daniel to question everything
that he's doing, all over again.
The real help comes exclusively from other committed individuals. Samia helps Daniel intercede when he
discovers a case of child abuse. The cops break the rules so the school can collect vandalism insurance. And
Valeria volunteers her art skills to give the kids a morale-boosting party. Daniel wheedles a parent into
demonstrating his truck for the little kids, an activity that makes their day. The value of personal
commitment is celebrated here.
Phillipe Torreton, who resembles a younger Sam Neill, is remarkably credible as the professional
teacher trying to cope. The actor doesn't beg for sentiment, and the character is allowed to make his
share of bad decisions without shifting the blame to others. The rest of the cast are excellent sketches. One
of the teachers has a problem that I either missed, or isn't fully conveyed in the subtitles, a lapse that
made me realize how interesting all of these characters are. The classrooms full of kids never seem to
be aware of the camera, a big plus (and a mystery, too).
The kids in It All Starts Today are undeniably cute, but no more adorable than anybody's children
in any school anywhere. The reason the film works is because it allows us to see that helping
preschoolers develop is more involved than just organized babysitting. Supervising sing-alongs and
projects takes a lot of energy. Daniel is a professional, and he knows that these kids desperately need
the inspiration he dispenses. The alternative are the generations of unmotivated & unloved children
that are ignored, or raised by television sets. It All Starts Today is a realistic but hopeful film
about struggling against social priorities that are way out of balance.
Facets Video's DVD of It All Starts Today is a reasonable rendering of an excellent film. The
letterboxed image looks a bit soft and light on the chroma (it might be a PAL conversion), but other technical
concerns are fine. The excellent audio abounds in source songs and live tracks of children singing. A
full commentary track with director Betrand Tavernier is provided. A trailer, a brief photo gallery, and short text entries for the main actors and the director are
included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It All Starts Today rates:
Video: Very good
Supplements: Trailer, text bios, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 28, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson