Zucchini has blue hair. His eyes are the size of golf balls, rimmed in blue. His eyebrows (blue, again) move like little daubs of icing. His head is as large as his body — a perfect canvas for a puppeteer to orchestrate the minutiae of emotion — contentment contained in the curl of a mouth, grief in the dip of an eyebrow. Zucchini is a claymation boy in a stop-motion world — but humanity pervades every inch of My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de courgette), the animated feature debut of Swiss director Claude Barras.
Art draws itself. It’s Zucchini’s creations — a kite, a wall of doodles, a beer can pyramid — that we meet before we ever see the boy himself. Icare, for reasons unknown, has been re-branded as “Zucchini” by his alcoholic mother. Dad is no longer in the picture; he left his family for another “chick” — in Zucchini’s childish imagination, his dad harbors a peculiar fondness for baby chickens. Zucchini lives in the attic among his artwork, a hideaway from his mother’s drunken rages.
After a tragic accident, a kind police officer takes Zucchini under his wing, moving him to a group home called The Fontaines. Here Zucchini encounters a coterie of bullies and misfits — a refuge for other discarded children, the abandoned kids of drug addicts, deportees, child abusers. Zucchini is targeted by Simon — a spiky truant with a red pompadour — though, like most bullies, this prickly armor protects the vulnerability beneath. Zucchini is just one oddball among a menagerie of strangeness — one kid eats toothpaste, another wets the bed, another bangs her fork when she’s distressed — but eccentricity shapes every family, found or otherwise.
Céline Sciamma (the writer/director behind Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood — all powerful work that deals with turbulent adolescence ) is the perfect choice to adapt Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une courgette for the screen. And even though Barras is dealing in clay and plastic, the film’s antecedent is all too real — he immersed himself in a French orphanage and even filmed the picture like a real movie for six weeks before beginning the animation work.
The film is a sensitive see-saw act between melancholy and levity. There’s a bit of Wes Anderson playfulness (head animator Kim Keukeleire also worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox), plus moments that resonate with some of the other orphan (or near-orphan) movies from the past year, like A Monster Calls and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — all testaments to that strangely steely brand of resilience children can have in the face of tragedy. When a new girl arrives, the raspy-voiced Camille, Zucchini and the others band together to save her from her opportunistic aunt, a vulgar dragon-lady — a caricature that is perhaps the only misstep in a film with an otherwise delicate touch.
Despite their wildly different backgrounds, the children are bound together in limbo space — too young to fly the coop, “too old to be loved,” as Simon describes in a particularly devastating scene. But even at its most sobering, My Life as a Zucchini — by virtue of the emollient effect of animation — distills its Dickensian tragedy through a more whimsical prism. In one scene, the kids dance, carefree, dappled in disco light, after their caretakers at the group home take them on a ski trip, breaking them out of their insular cocoon. While riding the slopes, grim reality brings their fun to a halt when they encounter that foreign animal — the child with a loving parent. All seven children freeze, suspended in time, their plasticine faces a marvel of emotions, playing wistful, haunted, hopeful all at once.
At a slender 66 minutes, the film is breathtakingly immersive, which is all the more impressive considering the proliferation of hyperreal digital animation in the past decade. Against those CGI giants, My Life as a Zucchini can at first seem crude and synthetic, its seams too visible. In the first minute of the film, it’s hard to escape hyperawareness of every painstaking stroke of animation — every little tile in place to achieve mosaic. The film is a precise collage of little moments — the way faces and rooms wax and wane with shadows, just like humans’ do. Birds hum, squirrels scavenge, the sun rises and falls. The children’s clay hair moves in the wind, and their little feet swing when they dangle off a chair. At some point, without even noticing, the seams disappear — this is the story of a puppet who was a real boy all along. Half-real, half-plastic, and altogether human.