Small Change

Time Out New York Project: Issue #739, November 26-December 2, 2009


Dir. François Truffaut. 1976. N/R. 104mins. In French, with subtitles. Nicole Félix, Chantal Mercier, Jean-François Stévenin.

François Truffaut famously left the teenage Antoine Doinel by the seashore in The Four Hundred Blows. For this tale of adolescent trials, the cowriter-director traveled to the landlocked central French town of Thiers, casting most of the roles with local residents. The film is primarily concerned with a group of children who go through a very eventful month, before and slightly into summer vacation. And while Truffaut occasionally turns his attention to several adult characters (like a teacher played by Jean-François Stévenin), there’s always a feeling that the kids are standing just outside the frame, studying their elders with a bemused grin and a curious eye.

The sustained sense of verisimilitude is more than pleasant, though Small Change would have benefited from the unsentimental perspective of Maurice Pialat, whose astonishing coming-of-age tale, Naked Childhood, goes much deeper into similar themes (and was, incidentally, produced by Truffaut). One longs for a less mawkish hand whenever this film slips into didacticism, the prime offender being Stévenin’s climactic speech to his class. It isn’t embarrassing, but the scene plays uncertainly, as if Truffaut’s sympathies—which rarely privilege child over adult, or vice versa—are on suddenly shaky ground. It’s one of the few times when the director talks down to his audience, onscreen and off.

Yet he still has a master’s ability to make even the smallest events seem momentous. No surprise that the best scene takes place in a movie theater where two girls become semiwilling pawns in a round-robin make-out session. Truffaut is no stranger to the sensual allure of films, or to the Cupid’s spell they can cast on people of all ages.—Keith Uhlich