Vibrant and teeming with life and jubilation, François Truffaut’s Small Change explores childhood as well as any film I’ve seen. This is because of Truffaut’s deep, intimate understanding of the subject and because of his willingness to go anywhere with it. He never panders or condescends, giving his characters all the heartache and joy they can handle without ever turning the camera way for a single solitary second.
With this approach, Truffaut understands that children, even infants, are capable of supreme sadness alongside their seemingly incessant joy and curiosity about the world. His understanding that the innocence of childhood comes with a sense of grace is beautifully explored throughout Small Change, giving his various scenes extra consequence and style.
Small Change is an ensemble picture that uses many performers, most of which are not professional actors, to roll through what seems like a very unstructured process. There is no screenplay credit for the picture, leading to the impression that much of what the children and adults say is improvised. Truffaut, instead of following a main character and setting up a particular plot, goes about Small Change with a freewheeling feel, giving the children the time and space to go through their days with glee and freedom.
Those who know Truffaut know about his exploration of youth and his fascination with childhood. There’s no question, too, that one of his basic themes is that of grace. And so it is that Small Change very much concerns itself with the grace of childhood. He follows a group of schoolchildren, most of them boys, through their lives and through incidents in their lives that range from the everyday to the extraordinary.
Filmed in Thiers in France, this is a motion picture that lives and breathes as much as it operates as a traditional movie. There are scenes, such as the one with the small boy in red overalls playing perilously outside, where Truffaut manipulates his audience in classic Hitchcockian fashion, playing with the possibilities and then offering up a conclusion that is altogether unlikely and entirely hopeful.
In these scenes, Truffaut is all about timing and space. With the character of Gregory, the aforementioned tot in red overalls, Truffaut masters our fears and serves them to us in a way that makes us smile and feel afraid at the very same time. The way he simultaneously provokes two seemingly opposite emotions is a thing of beauty and remains one of the more interesting, stunning scenes I’ve seen on film.
Small Change works in episodes because that’s how the life of a child works. When we grow up, we remember segments of childhood that helped bring us along to adulthood. We remember stories and scenes and interpretations, some of them wrong, about how we came to be. We recall the time we tried to tell a dirty joke or the time we snuck into the movie theatre and, luckily for us, Truffaut remembers those segments too.
Above all else, Small Change is a hopeful film. Truffaut’s ultimate faith in the goodness of humanity, voiced through the innocence of children, comes together in a final concluding speech delivered by Jean-François Stévenin’s character. It sums up the ultimate intent of the picture, turning the world once and for all over to the children and letting them work things out as they see fit. Perhaps that’s for the best.