Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is the boy's name. He is resourceful, quiet, and does what he can to get by. At home, he has a struggling relationship with his parents, especially his mother. She is a woman of curious interests, always distracted by her incommodious son and a secret affair with a man from her job. Antoine's stepfather appears nice enough while treating his son as an equal in a good manner, although he is not really attached to him. However, both parents share common traits: they are away from home quite a bit and do not pay close enough attention to their son. Sadly enough, they only judge him by his behavior and by reports they get from other people.
At school, Antoine's teacher classifies him as a menacing troublemaker. Not that it is entirely Antoine's fault, he just has terrible luck. In the opening scene of the film, we see a poster with a half-naked woman on the front being passed around quietly by the students. The teacher is sitting at his desk with his head down, grading papers, until the poster comes to Antoine and he finds it. He sends Antoine to the corner of the room, where he writes a note of resentment on the wall. As punishment for that, he is to diagram the exact words that he wrote. At home that night, Antoine's homework is interrupted. Because he did not complete it, his good friend René convinces him to skip school the next day, although Antoine is reluctant at first. They walk around France and notice Antoine's mother kissing a man that is not her husband. She and her son make eye contact, but René assures his friend that everything will be alright. The next morning, as the boys return to school, Antoine lies to his teacher and says the reason he missed school was that his mother died. Everything is alright until his mother, furious, arrives at school and her son is immediately identified as a liar.
And yet, we see Antoine alone at home in some private, subtle, and hopeful moments. One of them being, his love for Balzac. He adores him, and we see him reading his biography and lighting a candle in a shrine in his honor at home. One day, at school, the students are proposed to write an essay on an important event in their life, and Antoine chooses the topic of his grandfather's death, in which he incorporates a phrase from his Balzac book. Alas, the teacher identifies this as plagiarism, and sends Antoine out of the classroom, along with René. The two boys stay at René's house for quite some time, living up to the expectations of a life of crime, until they steal a typewriter leaving Antoine caught trying to return it. He is later sent to a juvenile delinquent detention home.
The 400 Blows is not meant to be a tragedy. Rather, it is a character study following Antoine Doinel's life and decisions he makes as a direct result of the many things going on in it. Even The 400 Blows captures a few moments of happiness joy. One of these is a priceless sequence in which a gym teacher is leading Antoine's class for a jog through Paris, not realizing that the boys are peeling off and running away two by two. There is another scene after Antoine's shrine for Balzac catches on fire and his parents are stressing and yelling at him. His mother suggests an outing to a movie theater, where they end up going. After the film, we see the trio in the car, laughing and reflecting on what they had seen. We see this as a moment of hope for Antoine and his family, for this being the only time they are all happy together.
There are many poignant moments however, emerging late in the film after Antoine is caught for stealing the typewriter. His father is fed up with his behavior and escorts him to a police station where he is sent to a jail cell and later in a police wagon full of prostitutes and thieves, with his face peering through the bars, full of tears. His parents discuss with the authorities that they cannot not take him back because they believe he will only run away again. So, in turn, their son is taken to the juvenile delinquent school. These sequences express a reality of Antoine's life, in tune with the outcome of himself. He remains quiet and reserved towards the end of the film, as if he has nothing to say.
The story of Antoine Doinel and his many experiences allow a life to be filled with curiosity and exploration. Every second of the ninety-nine minutes of the film is not wasted. Truffaut allows every minute to be overflowing with creativity while still maintaining the central story of the protagonist. It is not a film that can be taken lightly as a family movie to be watched every Saturday night. It is a film to be given plenty of thought, carefully examined, and given a conclusion. The genius of the film does not rely on that, moreover, it relies on how much is put into the film. Down to the smallest detail, the film is able to maneuver and progress. The story contains elements of sadness, regret, family, warmth, happiness, humor, values, and choices. Just like life itself.