Literally translated as “Pocket Money,” the title of François Truffaut’s 1976 film gets at something meager and precious about childhood. Screening in a new print at IFC Center, it’s the perfect palette-cleanser after the bloviated Where the Wild Things Are.
Small Change was shot on the fly, over a summer vacation in 1975 Thiers, Puy-de-Dôme, France, with a cast of 200 mostly local children. The baggy theme is kids’ resilience and resourcefulness, seen in incidents strung across the course of a school year: A classroom grudgingly led in reading Molière recites with gusto when the teacher leaves the room. A home-alone girl convinces neighbors she’s been abandoned, and gets a bundle of emergency food airlifted in. In the scene often identified as the film’s centerpiece, a toddler drops off the 11th story of an HLM apartment building—and lands with a harmless pat.
As a handful of faces separate from the crowd, Truffaut relaxes out the incipient personalities of his stars—doing their first and only acting here—never force-feeding lines or rewarding affectation. (Other than snapping a couple of freeze frames, Small Change is vigilant against creeping “kids say the darndest things” cuteness.) The puff-chested DeLuca brothers, Franck and Claudio, are little swaggerers. Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux) is a bowl-cutted softie with a permanent expression of eager expectance—Truffaut gifts him a first kiss.
Though much among the children, Small Change—which opens to a school bell and kids plunging down steep streets—also sees their uneasy place in the ecology of the town. Teachers confer over them (particularly over in-class masturbation), grandparents weigh in (“I hate the little monsters”)—and there’s Julien Leclou (Philippe Goldmann), the queasy-looking kid living in a shanty at the outskirts of town, who comes to school with bruises freshly changed, but always the same disintegrating outfit. Truffaut elides graphic grimness, but watching Julien scour a fairground by night, scavenging bric-a-brac fallen from the pockets of kids who could afford the rides, one gets more of a sense of how irreplaceable childhood is than from any numbing “Not the belt, Dad!” scene. When the obvious fact of abuse is confirmed, Truffaut—switching to hectic newscamera style—concentrates on the community’s agonized self-reproach. There’s little doubt who Jean-François Stévenin’s schoolteacher is speaking for when he says, “It is because of my own bad memories of my youth and because I don’t like the way children are treated that I chose to become a schoolteacher.” (Read: filmmaker—for Truffaut’s faith in healing education is his most touching trademark.)
Though uniquely optimistic, Small Change belongs to an extraordinary cycle of French films about childhood survival that began with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. He later produced Maurice Pialat’s debut, L’enfance nue (1968), following a hot-potato foster kid, while Jean Eustache’s boyhood memoir, Mes petites amoreuses (1974), couldn’t exist without 400 Blows.
Small Change also appears in Alliance Française’s continuing retrospective of Truffaut’s fecund ’70s run, ravishing films now re-emerging from the shadow of his early successes. Rarities include Such a Gorgeous Girl Like Me (blithe-amoral Bernadette Lafont) and near-perfect The Man Who Loved Women (slightly ossified serial seducer Charles Denner). Truffaut sees the child in his adults; Denner’s emotional detachment—and bibliophilia—are traced to Mother’s sentencing him to read, stiff and silent, whenever she was home. It’s a memory of Truffaut’s, the boy who collected Balzac paperbacks at an age when most of us collected trading cards, the man fascinated with childhood because he was never quite young.