What a difference a year makes. In late 2015, Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion’s fresh-faced, paradoxically upbeat documentary about the complex, interrelated, and potentially apocalyptic issues facing our globalized world opened in France. The educational, continent-hopping investigation was a surprise hit, racking up more than a million admissions, winning the 2016 César for Best Documentary, and becoming a focal point for a gathering movement of citizens committed to putting its practical, inspiring, think-global-act-local solutions into practice.
Roughly 16 months — and a highly divisive and contentious US election — later, it opens in America, just two days before France itself is due to go to the polls, fielding a far-right candidate for president who was among the only world leaders to call and congratulate Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. The political landscape that “Tomorrow” breezes into now is such that its issues, cataclysmically urgent though they are, could seem de-prioritized.
The film was prompted by Laurent and Dion coming across a scientific study in Nature magazine that stated that at current rates of population expansion, resource consumption and environmental damage, humanity could be in the throes of an extinction-level event by the end of this century. But arresting though that thought certainly is, the year 2100 is an almost luxurious consideration if you’re in some doubt as to whether we’re going to make it to the end of next week.
Initially, “Tomorrow” does little to dispel suspicions that it’s going to be so much well-meaning but ineffectual do-goodery. Freshly re-dubbed for American audiences, Laurent’s charmingly accented English tells us how she and her telegenic filmmaker friends, shown engaging Frenchly in passionate discussion in a restaurant, “weren’t activists or green freaks, but … we felt we had to do something.” Cue some fast-motion Abbey Road-style footage of them marching across beaches, airport concourses, and boggy moors while twee lifestyle pop plays on the soundtrack: It’s all a bit “How to Save the World and Be Instagram-Ready While Doing It.”
But perhaps it’s the winning sincerity of the directors’ intent (there’s a lovely quality of genuineness that Laurent also brought to her previous narrative directorial outings, “The Adopted” and especially 2014’s excellent “Breathe”) that overcomes the cutesiness of filmmaking that can at times feel one Snapchat filter or hand-drawn font away from full-blown hipsterism. Or perhaps it’s the incisive and surprisingly instructive way the film, after a somewhat expected opening couple of chapters on Agriculture and Energy, expands its remit. When “Tomorrow” starts to make intellectual as well as geographical leaps and to draw macroeconomic, political, and social factors into its bright-eyed, approachable orbit, that’s when cynicism gives way to admiration, and admiration can flare into inspiration.
The latter three chapters — Economy, Democracy, and Education — are really where “Tomorrow” takes flight. Interspersing articulate expert talking heads with the stories of businesses, communities, and projects that illustrate potential solutions to the problems at hand, the film builds to a hopeful portrait of grass-roots activism and citizen engagement. Its curiosity ranges from the very minute and specific — how to save space in urban farms by growing basil plants under tomatoes — to the extremely general and basic, as in, “Where does money come from?” (The Answer May Surprise You!) No problem is too big. No cow is too sacred (the greater productivity of industrial agriculture is exposed as a lie, for example). And no causal interrelation is too complex for Laurent and Dion to find a way of breaking down into easily digestible concepts.
Like a sunnier, less snarky version of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next,” the solution-focussed doc highlights a model public school in Finland; a citywide composting project in San Francisco; a town in England that prints its own money; a village in India in which local democratic process has led to solidarity against the unjust caste system; an envelope factory in Lille which reinvests its profits rather than paying shareholders; bike schemes in Copenhagen; Iceland’s pioneering response to political breakdown; and so on. If there is commonality between all these stories, aside from the general can-do attitude, it’s that they each represent the devolution of power and wealth from national governments to smaller communities and municipalities, and from multinational corporations, banks, and industries to local enterprises.
As ever with this sort of advocacy film, there is a danger that it will only ever preach to the converted. And that’s perhaps why the filmmakers’ approach is so smart: “Tomorrow” wastes little time trying to convince us that that world is ending. It takes that as a known fact, and then highlights the people who are fighting in small but appreciable ways to stop that from happening. Almost inadvertently, it therefore embodies not just the how, but a pretty good reason why humanity ought to survive: It has people like these in it, ordinary people whose example, be it ever so idealized here, makes even a 2017 tomorrow seem not quite so bleak.