19 June 2009

The Joys and Sorrows but Mostly The Joys of Being A Child, Truffaut Style

Being a child is the best. Being a child is the worst. Being a child is to know freedom. Being a child is like serving a sentence. Being a child is wasted on the young.

Being a child was explored wonderfully by the late great French director, Francois Truffaut in L'Argent de Poche (1976) known to most in the U.S. by its American title, Small Change.

Here's what Vincent Canby said about the film in his review of October 1976:
"'Small Change' has the air of a child's Saturday afternoon when no special activities have been planned. It ambles through the lives of these children, observing them in school, at home, going to the movies, making do on a Sunday morning when parents sleep late, trying to pawn some textbooks, making painful and hilarious discoveries that, by the time we reach the end, have encompassed most of the ordinary expressions of childhood in ways not possible in the conventional fiction film."

The great American sitcom Seinfeld was supposedly a show about nothing. That was, of course, a misnomer, it was about everything. An uncommonly hilarious look at four pixilated New Yorkers that managed to say a lot about relationships, culture and people. In the same sense Small Change is about nothing in particular and everything in general.

It takes a brave director like Truffaut to follow so many different threads in a film of just under an hour and three quarters and to do so with child actors, most of whom had never acted before. To make such a charming and insightful movie in the bargain is a mark of a true genius.

The children of the small French town of Thiers are the stars of Small Change. You may not be surprised to learn that they are no different than children in other industrialized part of the world.

Bored by school and thus adept clock watchers. Always looking for a good time. Curious about the world and their place in it, even ready to be defiant and push boundaries. Children, as I know especially well from 20 years of teaching, are great boundary pushers. Let's see just how much we can get away with before trouble starts is the common credo.

Happily the term mischievous is becoming archaic. It implied that children were "up to no good" though pure at heart. One shouldn't put such a value judgement upon what children are "up to." Who says its no good? We stuffy old adults do and by golly everyone knows the worth of our opinions. No, what children are "up to" is testing. Toes are forever poking into water to discover what's cold and what's hot and what's just right. What children are "up to" is learning, figuring out, negotiating, reconciling. They really want to know what it's all about. And for that matter, what "it" is.

That's the dad blasted thing about adults. Many of us stop looking. We decide rather quickly that we know what it's all about. We develop a world view and stick with it. All actions and events are observed through the same prism. Children take things on their own terms, unfiltered.

This is just some of what Truffuat gives us through Small Change as he follows some of the the young uns around through the last month of a school year. The kiddies range in age from about 18 months to about 14 years. Those are your prime growing up years. No longer a baby, not yet a corrupted teen who knows what it's all about.

Boys and girls are equally represented, as is when their two worlds collide at around 12 or 13. Oh sure they may play together before then but its without the complications that plague the sexes forever after puberty sets in. (There is a first kiss scene in Small Change that is oh so sweet without being at all cloying or exploitative.)

Among its other gifts, Small Change is kind to its adults. Teachers, parents and other oldsters are not the bad guys. Truffuat wouldn't cheapen his story like that, for one thing he's not dealing in stereotypes. Nor types of any kind for that matter. Everything is quite natural. Adults are seen as coping the best they can, whether with a pregnancy, a spouse who's split or a son whose friends cut his hair. Children and adults are not at war here, they just often have conflicting goals.

It is not all Pollyanna sweetness. We do have the abused child who in turn is the local delinquent. Poor lad. Truffaut handles him and his scenes appropriately, that is, without comment. A good director trusts the audience to make up their own minds.

Some films about childhood make one nostalgic for a time that in actuality never existed. That's, I suppose, the definition of nostalgia, a false memory that sanitizes the past. By being more true to reality, Small Change does a greater service to our mental meanderings. Small Change had me reflecting on childhood from the perspective of a former child, a teacher and a parent.

Parenting has been about as rewarding a venture as I could ever imagine. Both my childhood and teaching experiences have been incredibly mixed with much to recommend and much to rue. I appreciate the fact that Small Change does not sentimentalize. It does however capture more the joys than the disappointments of childhood and parenting.

TCM just showed it last night so it'll not be appearing there anytime soon. So jump, hop, skip to your local video store (imagine being part of a great adventure as you go) and rent a copy this weekend. Or if you must, go to your online account and book it for immediate delivery (by a stork!).

As the kids would say: it's fun!

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