The Little Thief

Janine is seventeen. Left in the care of relatives by a neglectful mother, she turns to stealing. To escape the crushing monotony of her small-town life, she sneaks out of school, trades her drab uniform for a dress and heels and clicks off to the local movie house -- a place for dreaming.

These early scenes, suffused with the pain and hope of adolescence, bear the hallmark of the great French director François Truffaut, who died in 1984. The resemblance is no coincidence. The film is based on a thirty-page synopsis Truffaut had written and long prepared to bring to the screen. Shortly before his death, he asked filmmaker Claude Berri (Jean de Florette), his friend, to make certain that The Little Thief would be produced. Berri hired Claude Miller, who frequently worked as Truffaut's assistant director, to take on the project.

The result is a gift, a magical film. Though Miller's style is less buoyant than Truffaut's, the movie is full of hilarious and heartbreaking moments that recall Truffaut's 1959 gem, The 400 Blows.

Janine is played with a rare combination of fragility and force by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of actress Jane Birkin. She gives a starmaking performance. When caught stealing, Janine runs away from home, takes on a job as an au pair and embarks on affairs with two men, one her own age, the other in his forties. Falling afoul of the law again, this time for love, Janine is sent to reform school. A daring escape leads her back home, to no avail. She must find her own way.

Gainsbourg, whose looks can range from plain to ravishing in the flicker of an eye, gives Janine an abiding resilience. She epitomizes Truffaut's faith in the triumph of youth over despair. So does the film. The Little Thief is the summer's loveliest last-minute surprise.