A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 12-year-old boy at the center of this French-language drama is a budding juvenile delinquent who lies, steals, smokes, swears (in subtitles), and repeatedly runs away from home. The plain, unsentimental filmmaking style neither condemns nor glorifies his misdeeds, and there are no easy solutions offered, with an especially big question mark at the end. The parents in the film are depicted as ineffective, and Antoine's mother in particular is an adulterous, immature type. A psychological interrogation briefly brings up topics of sex and abortion. Viewers dying to know what happens to Antoine after the final scene can track the same character's young adulthood in several subsequent Francois Truffaut movies.
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What's the story?
THE 400 BLOWS is considered a classic in portraying a pained and turbulent male adolescence. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a trouble-prone 12-year-old Paris schoolboy, often left unsupervised while both his mother and his stepfather work at separate jobs. While his stepdad seems okay, his pretty mother (who, Antoine realizes, is having an affair with her boss) is less than maternal. Antoine doesn't seem much worse-behaved than his schoolmates, but he's always the one getting caught at wrongdoing, and his defiance spirals into skipping school, thieving, and running away from home. Finally, after trying both loving and strict approaches, the parents give up on Antoine and send him to a camp for juvenile delinquents. In a dialogue with a state psychologist, Antoine reveals, matter-of-factly, that his mother never even wanted him -- that she nearly sought an abortion until being talked out of it by Antoine's grandmother.
Is it any good?
This movie's excellent, though a bit heavy for younger kids. In his memoir The Film Club, writer David Gilmour tells how he tried to make his own teen son sit through The 400 Blows; the boy would only do it if he got to watch the softcore "erotic thriller" Basic Instinct as a reward -- practically an Antoine Doinel moment right there. The Francois Truffaut classic (the illustrious filmmaker's first feature, drawing upon events from his own early life) is revered by older critics like Gilmour even though its virtues might be harder to appreciate for 21st-century kids, who have seen their alienation, school violence, and family dysfunction dramatized much more graphically than did audiences of 1959 (Truffaut doesn't even use that easy symbol of rebellion, rock-and-roll music).
Still, there is quiet power in the stoic way Antoine confronts life's challenges and never sheds a tear despite his seemingly disastrous choices. While not self-pitying, Antoine seems sensitized to the idea that he's all on his own -- that lot of inexperienced parents have kids when they shouldn't, and he is one of the casualties. Returning to collaborate with actor Jean-Pierre Leaud over the years, Truffaut made series of movies, both short subjects and features, following Doinel through manhood and his own bittersweet, failed marriage. These are also on DVD, though not as easy to find as The 400 Blows.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether Antoine Doinel is really a "good" boy or an incorrigible "delinquent." Could have made better choices in life, given his environment and upbringing? Ask kids what they might have done in Antoine's place, or if they know anyone like him. Generations of critics have called this one of the best and most insightful films ever made about boyhood. Agree? Disagree? Students of the French language and culture could take home some lessons from the settings, dialogues, and literary references (such as Balzac).
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