It is also a unique story of one youngster who lives a life of desperation, caught up in a small Paris apartment with a hostile mother and an indifferent father, and knocked about in school by teachers who are pompous martinets, quick to humiliate their pupils and slow to inspire.
There is a documentary feel to this film, as if we are prying into the life of the youngster, Antoine Doinel, played by the amazing Jean-Pierre Léaud, not seeing it acted out. When life at home becomes unbearable for him, he runs away to play hooky at the cinemas, or steals about with a friend, getting involved in the petty theft that will send him first to a police jail (in scenes inspired I believe by Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 crime drama "The Wrong Man") and then the reform school--and the final heartbreaking rejection by the mother who never wanted him born in the first place.
What could have been a tragic or melodramatic film is simply a powerful 99 minute personal statement by a director destined for other great films like "Jules and Jim"(1961), "Day for Night"(1973), and another excellent film about the unique (and soon all-too lost) world of childhood, "Small Change" (1976).
It's a matter-of-fact slice of life involving an intelligent and sensitive young boy who reads Balzac novels, smokes cigarettes, has the spunk of three ordinary kids and is equiped with a desire to live and enjoy a bit of freedom before being drafted into the military and/or the banality and conformity of the adult world.
One look at this film (I saw it first at 24 ) and you know without knowing much about writer-director Francois Truffaut that this had to be based on his own life, or someone close to him. The story is extremely intimate and the boy breathes life into a role that seems all too real. Nothing here suggests its drawn from a sociological study or the hyped 1950's "message" movie in the Hollywood tradition of Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) or "The Blackboard Jungle" (1956) and other lesser B-films of that era that lean toward exploiting the youth movement from a safe and decidedly adult perspective.
This is a singular vision of childhood without sentiment or hyper-dramatization. A must-see.