Bertrand Tavernier's unconventional, absorbing 1999 feature laments our lack of social responsibility. The charismatic director (Philippe Torreton) of an ambitious kindergarten in a bleak area of northern France works tirelessly to stimulate the children's curiosity, but his work is hampered by the parents' poverty, alcoholism, and abusiveness. Tavernier gives the children vivid, sharply delineated voices; working with a largely nonprofessional cast, he strips bare the characters' frailty but grants them a decency and honesty that redeems them despite the mounting hardships and tragedies. Unfortunately, the succession of verbal confrontations between the director and the traumatized community—parents, local politicians, ineffective social workers—threatens to reduce the film to a social policy primer, a problem alleviated somewhat by Torreton's electric performance. 117 min.