Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) is teacher and director of the école maternelle, a pre-school open to children ages 2 to 6 in northern France. In Bernard Tavernier's deeply moving film, It All Starts Today, the children are the stars. Their faces and loving smiles shine through the grimness of their circumstances. Based on the notebooks of Tavernier's son-in-law Dominique Sampiero, a provincial teacher, the film is about the difficulties and challenges of children but is also a tribute to the courage and commitment of teachers. Lefebvre is a poet whose voice-over narration adds a touching lyricism to the film. "We'll tell our children it was hard", he writes. "Piles of stones placed one by one. We'll tell the children it was hard but their fathers are lords and this is their legacy. A pile of stones and the courage to lift them".
The school is in a town that has been hit hard by the closure of the coalmine, and where unemployment has reached 34 percent. Lefebvre is a gentle and compassionate teacher but a tough administrator who tries to shake the political bureaucracy into providing adequate programs for the school. He protests loudly against budget cuts and insensitive government regulations and the shortage of trained professionals. Lefebvre shows anger and frustration in the scene where he slams the door in the face of a visiting social worker, and when he storms into the Mayor's office to rail against cutbacks in the school lunch program. He is hardest on himself, however, when tragedy befalls an alcoholic mother and her family, and when his common-law wife Valeria's (Maria Pitteresi) young son Remi (Lambert Marchal) gets into trouble, challenging his commitment to return to the school the following year.
The problems of the school are severe but not exaggerated. Being the husband of a pre-school teacher I know the kinds of circumstances that parents and teachers face every day and they are not that different from those shown in the film. Tavernier does not idealize the poor or romanticize their circumstances but shows us conditions as they exist. This is a message film and we do get the message, but it doesn't seem preachy because it comes from a passion that springs naturally from the lives of the characters. But the magic of the film lies in the children themselves. There is no acting or interpretation. The camera zooms around the school with lightning speed catching the spontaneity of the children singing, dancing, talking, playing, and just being themselves. It All Starts Today does not offer any simple solutions and can be dark, but, at the end, when each child comes up to the camera for a final smile I felt only lightness and joy. Being around children and adults with courage will do that.