Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: "My Life as a Zucchini"

“My Life as a Zucchini” has a very childlike animated look and premise. It’s very much about childhood, though I don’t think children are its proper audience.

This French/Swiss stop-motion gem, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, can be quite glum and even depressing. I daresay most people will shed a tear or two while watching it. But there's also quite a bit of magic and awe packed into its slim 70-minute running time.

It's about a sad, hollow-eyed 9-year-old named Icare, who prefers to go by the nickname his mother has given him, Zucchini. He spends his days in his loft bedroom playing alone, while his mother, despondent over his father's long-ago abandonment, drinks herself into a stupor while watching TV. There is almost certainly abuse happening, emotional and probably physical, too.

"Zucchini" undoubtedly originated as an insult, but now the boy clings to that identity with a clinging sense of desperation.

But then Zucchini accidentally kills her and is sent to an orphanage called Fountaines. The officious policeman handling his case, Raymond, tries to be nice on the way there, letting the boy fly his beloved kite from the police car. He has drawn a picture of his father upon it dressed as a superhero, and if that doesn't make you well up right there, then I can't even.

The other kids are lost souls like him with a mix of tales of parental woe -- missing, deported, dead, high on drugs. The children all bear emotional scars and some on the outside as well.

The biggest boy, a redhead named Simon, takes on the role of bully, though he sees himself more as the unofficial leader and tough-love protector. He collects all the stories behind each orphan and wants Zucchini's, too. Simon teases, and cajoles, and bothers, and eventually things come to blows and we think we know where this is heading. But maybe not.

The other children include the boy who wets the bed and refuses to lie; the girl who hides her face with her hair and nervously taps her fork; the timid lad who buries his sorrows in food; and the girl who runs out excitedly at every approaching car, thinking it's her mother returned.

Things start to ease up with the arrival of Camille. She's been staying with her aunt after the death of her parents, but the uncaring woman can't stand her moping anymore. She and Zucchini form an instant rapport that shows the buds of romance.

The other kids are endlessly fascinated by this, and soon there's lots of talk about love and sex, which in Simon's description involves the man's willy "exploding." The chubby kid, terrified, declares he will remain celibate forever.

(Like I said, not really for little kids. The film's PG-13 rating is more for themes than any explicit violence or language.)

Directed by Claude Barras, who wrote the screenplay along with three others based on the novel by Gilles Paris, "My Life as a Zucchini" has a deliberately throwback look, with the characters and objects seemingly formed out of molded clay. I liked how the animators played with perspective -- cars have tires the size of doughnuts -- and the way the people's elbows just curve, with no bend.

The bright colors and sharp lines are a contrast to the movie's sense of melancholy and ambling story. The situation evolves, but in a naturalistic way rather than via a structured narrative.

The nicely goofy teacher, Mr. Paul, takes up with Rosy, the assistant administrator, prompting more exploding willy talk. Zucchini writes to Raymond the cop, who comes for occasional visits where the other boys drop water balloons on his head. (Most of them have not had positive interactions with law enforcement.) Camille's aunt reappears and causes trouble.

Mostly, the film is an interior look at what it's like to be a kid when they take you to the place where there's "nobody left to love you," to use Simon's words. The children are constantly in conflict with each other, but there's also an unspoken understanding of camaraderie for a diverse set of young souls caught in the same situation.

The way Camille quietly undermines Simon's authority, while appearing to knuckle under to his alpha-male vibe, is quite charming.

I also loved the simple poetry of how the orphanage provides a slider bar for each child to express how they're feeling, with illustrations ranging from sunny to stormy. Simon's is perpetually sunk to the bottom, while the others' rise and fall with the emotional tide.

The film is being released in both its original French with subtitles and with English dubbing. The French voices include Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz and Brigitte Rosset, while the American cast has Erick Abbate, Ness Krell, Romy Beckman, Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris.

It's a wonderful movie in any tongue, smart and tender yet straight-eyed and unsentimental. It grasps that children understand a lot of what is going on when things turn bad, even when they seem confused and non-responsive.

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