It is June, and Martine (Pascale Bruchon) has written a postcard to her cousin from the village in the very centre of France, telling of how she hopes she will be going to a summer camp soon, preferably one with girls and boys there rather than just girls. Her cousin is more interested in reading the card than he is in lessons at school, something that does not escape the notice of his teacher, Mr Richet (Jean-François Stévenin), who orders him to the front of the class to make an example of him. However, Mr Richet is a kindhearted tutor and instead makes a grammar lesson out of the situation, but soon the class will have new arrival, who may disrupt their peace...
Writer and director François Truffaut returned to the subject of children a couple of times after his breakthrough film, The Four Hundred Blows, in 1959, and L'Argent de Poche was seen widely as a lesser work than that now-classic, mainly due to its perceived sentimentality. But there's an unexpected amount of grit to what could have been a series of cutesy episodes with the young, amateur cast, which makes itself plain as the stories draw on. In structure, this is like a few instalments of a children's television series such as Camberwick Green or Postman Pat strung together, as Truffaut alights upon one set of characters then flits off to the next.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the director did have a point to make, and this was no ramble through a collection of child-friendly tales, although it could easily be seen as such, though some parents might not be too taken with scenes like the one where two boys use binoculars to spy on a naked woman, or another where a joke in dubious taste is told. But Truffaut has real empathy with these kids, and is absolutely on their side against what can be a cruel life, an aspect which emerges in comedic sequences such as where the little girl is left behind as punishment by her parents when they go out for dinner, forcing her to ingenuity in finding something to eat.
There are a generous amount of laughs here, and the film could be accused of donning the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia to relate its stories, or it would if it was not for one character, Julien (Philippe Goldmann), a dark cloud over the sunshine of the other's lives. This is not his fault, and at first we think he is a bad influence when we see him stealing and leading other children astray, as when he tricks his way into the cinema without paying - naturally with Truffaut, the local picture palace is a great way of bringing together the community, and watch out for the bizarre newsreel they are shown with the whistler.
But there's a reason for Julien's bad behaviour, which we find out at the end, casting a dfferent tone on what we have seen him do, now we know he never had a good role model or parent to guide him: quite the opposite, in fact. Contrast him with Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux), who also lives alone with one parent, but his father is an invalid who cannot take care of him in the way Patrick would like. This might have turned him to the dark side as it has Julien, but actually he goes in search of a mother figure and develops a crush on his best friend's mother, the kind of sweetness that has led some to identify L'Argent de Poche as strictly saccharine. Yet the speech that Mr Richet offers at the end, just as the holidays are about to begin, illustrates the film's faith in children and their resilience in the face of what can be through no fault of their own a harsh existence. This doesn't quite rescue the overall slightness of the narrative, but it does lend depth to what could have been the French art film equivalent of a Disney timewaster.