In 2008, the satirical website The Onion published a story entitled “Michel Gondry Entertained For Days By New Cardboard Box,” poking a bit of fun at the French filmmaker’s ability to find whimsy and imagination in the most unexpected of places. That Gondry’s movies revel in the fantastic and often eschew anything resembling the cynical is hardly news, but that he’s continued to invest himself in the creation of those kind of films (save for that brief foray into superhero fare with “The Green Hornet”) is certainly worth pointing out on a regular basis.
His latest, “Microbe and Gasoline,” is another example of exactly that. Finally getting a release in the U.S. nearly a year after it opened in France (and ten months since it first played in the States, thanks to a New York Film Festival premiere), the feel-good film is Gondry has none of the bells and whistles we usually associate with Gondry films. With the exception of a few off-kilter scenes in which an exhausted lead character struggles to understand the passage of time after far too many days without a good sleep, this is Gondry’s most lo-fi film. A far cry from “The Science of Sleep” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” territory, “Microbe and Gasoline” is more in line with other recent offerings like “The We and The I,” which takes place exclusively on a bus. The new film may feature a big idea at its heart (two young teens build their own car and take it on a road trip), but the story involves the actual construction of something, rather than someone dreaming it into existence.
Titled after the nicknames of its two lead characters — the small-for-his-age Daniel (Ange Dargent), derisively referred to as Microbe by his classmates, and new student Theo (Théophile Baquet), who picks up the nickname “Gasoline” for his petrol-smelling clothes — Gondry’s film is about the relationship between two outsiders who join forces because everyone else around them is wholly unable to appreciate their charms. “If you’re my friend, you’re an independent spirit,” Theo tells Daniel late in the movie, a sentiment that doesn’t need to be vocalized to be true.
Daniel, despite his misfit status at school, doesn’t shy away from either his creative tendencies (he’s a painter, talented enough to get his own exhibition in a small gallery, which no one but Theo visits) or his burgeoning sexual desires, while Theo is unabashedly himself at every moment (it’s easy to imagine Theo growing up to be Stéphane from “Science of Sleep”).
Both Theo and Daniel are stuck in unsatisfying situations at home, which stimulates their desire to run away. Daniel’s mother (played by Audrey Tautou, the film’s only recognizable face) is perennially depressed, while his father is absent. Theo’s mother is resistant to his imagination and creative spark, immune to his many charms. They don’t fit in, and the way they announce that more firmly to the world is by building an actual vehicle to get away from their problems. Weirdly enough, it works. Well, the vehicle, that is.
Packrat Theo sparks to the idea that they can transform an old engine into a fully fledged vehicle with some smart scavenging and a little ingenuity, a plan that Daniel pushes to logical extremes through his eventual idea to disguise the small car as a house, all the better to hide from any cops who notice, hey, there are two kids driving that totally fake car.
The duo soon set out on a wild road trip, one complete with plenty of run-ins with mostly fooled law enforcement, and lots of wacky characters who threaten to derail what is unquestionably a terrible idea. As the trip winds on, the pair’s bond is tested, and Gondry is able to frequently tap back into the true emotional center of the film: A friendship. Everything else is just window dressing (or, in this case, window dressing on a small car that’s made out of a small shed).
Despite the inherent charm of the story — and Gondry’s charm really is particularly well-suited to stories about kids — there are a handful of missteps along the way, including a running joke that everyone thinks Daniel looks like a girl (he doesn’t) and an overbearing score by Jean-Claude Vannier that’s incongruously serious and mournful. At nearly 105 minutes, “Microbe and Gasoline” runs out of steam in its second act, but the majority of this sweet, sensitive ride is a real treat.
“Microbe and Gasoline” opens in limited release on Friday, July 1.