Antoine is not really a bad kid; he just has bad luck. He gets into trouble early in the film for being the one holding a pinup calendar in class when the teacher looks around to see what the laughter is about. He and a rich friend steal a typewriter, but Antoine is caught trying to return it. He has a shrine where he lights candles in honor of the French author Balzac, and one the candles catches the shrine on fire and the apartment nearly goes up in flames.
He is deposited from one uncaring institution to another. His parents are nice enough, but his mother doesn't like being a mother; she would rather be rich and with her lover from work. His hapless stepfather is a nice enough guy, but he's not good for much except an affable sympathy. He is seen as a troublemaker at school; everything he does seems to reinforce this view. He lies and tells the school that his mother has died when he is threatened with suspension for not doing his homework. When she turns up at the school, their idea of him is confirmed.
Because of the typewriter incident, he is sent to a reformatory, where he continues to get into trouble until he eventually escapes with a bunch of the other kids while they are on work detail (!). By the end of the film, in that striking final shot, he is trapped on a beach, staring at the water, nowhere to go but forward to oblivion or back to jail. This bleak ending, with Antoine turning to stare into the camera, is among the most famous shots in cinema history, and for good reason.
The film is largely autobiographical, as I have said. Truffaut was a street kid who used cinema to escape. The influential French critic Andre Bazin, to whom this film was dedicated, took the young man under his wing and helped him, first to become a critic and then to become a director. Truffaut and many of the other New Wave directors started out as critics who put their money where their mouths were. Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, and many of the other great directors of the last half of the twentieth century grew out of this mold. Truffaut is my favorite, but I have to admit that I have only seen a couple of Godard's films, and none of the early ones
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