From “Oliver Twist” to “The Fault In Our Stars,” younger viewers have always had an affinity for melancholy. Call it a penchant for melodrama, unfettered access to emotions without shame, or maybe it’s taking comfort in life’s messier truths before social mores encourage them to project happiness at all times. Children often feel things more intensely than jaded adults; it follows that they would respond to narratives that are comfortable painting with shades of grey.
Which is not to say “My Life As A Zucchini” isn’t colorful. Visually, it uses a whimsical palette and exudes vintage charm. The figures, with their circular eyes and ruddy noses and ears have that certain stop-motion je ne sais quoi. The wide, circular eyes of the film’s mournful protagonist, Zucchini, are rimmed in blue to match his hair, painting his face with a pallor that mirrors the blues inside.
When we meet Icare, whom his mother calls “Zucchini” (Courgette in French), he is stacking the beer cans strewn about his house into a tower. As his mother calls menacingly from off screen, threatening a beating, a horrible accident takes her life. With no father to speak of, a friendly policeman named Raymond delivers Zucchini to a group home, his only belongings a kite depicting his father as a superhero and a single sentimental beer can. (On the other side of the kite, Zucchini drew a baby chicken; his mother once told him his father liked chicks very much.)
At the group home, Zucchini meets a group of wayward souls with similar stories to his own: Some have parents in jail; others were abused; one girl’s mother was deported. The ringleader, Simon, sporting a shock of flame-red Tin Tin hair, singles Zucchini out for some tame nine-year-old bullying, calling him “potato” instead of “Zucchini.” Simon turns out to be mostly harmless, as long as he retains the illusion of being in charge. Despite caring teachers who tuck the children into bed with goodnight kisses, Zucchini is slow to adjust to his new surroundings. That is, until Camille shows up.
Though she is clearly dealing with trauma of her own, Camille instantly brightens up the group, bringing the shy kids out of their shells and even tempering Simon’s wrath. Zucchini makes no secret of his feelings for Camille, singing her praises in the illustrated letters he sends to Raymond, who visits the boy periodically. On a group trip to a ski resort, the two young paramours sneak out to make snow angels at night, sharing small intimacies befitting their young age.
The ski trip provides the film’s most poignant moments, as hints of the outside world puncture the kids’ protected but isolated bubble. In one instance, an angry mother calls one child a thief when her daughter kindly lends him her ski goggles; in another, the group notices a mother kissing her son on the head after he takes a tumble. “She looks nice,” they muse. As the wide-eyed group stares transfixed at the loving family, the frame lingers just long enough to make its point, but not so long that it feels belabored.
Such is the deft brilliance of director Claude Barras’ understated heartbreaker. The restraint and care with which Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma tell their drama denotes great respect for their young characters and their young audience. In their snowy chat, Zucchini reveals to Camille with self-reflection beyond his years that had his mother lived, he likely would have spent his adult days drinking beer with her. “I’m quite happy to know it will never happen,” says the nine-year-old, and the insight does not seem out of place since the film has taken its characters on their own terms from the beginning.
An accomplished director herself, Sciamma (adapting a novel by Gilles Paris) demonstrates a rare talent for treating young characters as fully formed humans with hopes and desires. This was particularly true of her second feature, “Tomboy,” a story about a girl who convinces her classmates she is a boy, which Sciamma told with equal parts humor and nuance.
A testament to the power of community to heal the deepest wounds, “My Life As A Zucchini” takes on heavy subject matter with a light hand, and comes up with a delightful tale that is equal parts wrenching and uplifting.
“My Life As A Zucchini” opens in theaters in the U.S. in English and the original French on Friday, February 24th.