Featuring the voices of Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Michel Vuillermoz, Paulin Jaccoud, and Veronique Montel. Directed by Claude Barras. Rated PG-13. 66 minutes. 2017.
My Life as a Zucchini is a film of solemnity and quirk, of sadness and strangeness, that makes a significant impression in spite or, perhaps, because of its short length. At barely more than an hour, the film covers a surprising terrain of emotions within complex, well-rounded characters who are not what one expects from an animated feature. We are accustomed to the broad strokes. Animated characters, especially those who are children, are inherently innocent unless the film goes out of its way to underline their evilness. Here is a film that doesn’t coast on such assurances. These are remarkably vulnerable children at the center of this narrative, of which there is a thin one that kind-of, sort-of frames the central action. They mean well, but their spirits are utterly decimated by life’s cruel twists of fate. If they hurt others, that is because they are a product of their environment.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our story begins with young Zucchini (voice of Gaspard Schlatter) accidentally killing his mother by slamming an attic door on her head and sending her tumbling back down the ladder. The mom (voice of Natacha Varga-Koutchoumov) was a verbally abusive drunk, but he didn’t mean to do her any harm. She’s his mom, at any rate, and the incident changes the boy’s mood. His name, of course, isn’t actually the vegetable, but it’s what his mom called him. He keeps (or reclaims) it, much as he packs one of the hundreds of beer cans that were littered on the floor of their home and which he used to build various structures in what increasingly feels like a previous life. They are souvenirs of that past existence, certainly not of happier times, but as a reminder of them and as a keepsake.
After the mother’s death, Zucchini is transferred to the care of the state, his father having not been in the picture for some time. The officer who handles his case, a kindly man named Raymond (voice of Michel Vuillermoz), finds himself identifying with the boy during his stint with a home for damaged children. The two correspond while Zucchini becomes accustomed to life with a makeshift family of troubled youngsters as his siblings and with the likes of Rosy (voice of Veronique Montel) and Mr. Paul (voice of Adrien Barazzone) as their parental units. It’s a state of limbo while better plans are made for the children, but one gets the feeling that such plans are rarely fulfilled for this lot. That isn’t, of course, a reflection upon the children themselves, who are an eccentric lot as prone to compassion for others as anyone else, but their situations have made them into ticking time bombs with an emotional charge.
A few of them exist in the background, but it’s a tribute to the screenplay (by Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro, and director Claude Barras, adapting the novel by Gilles Paris) that the few characteristic traits we receive are comprehensive ones. Ahmed’s (voice of Raul Ribera) mother was deported one day while the boy was at school, and he bursts from the structure asking if she’s returned every time a car door slams outside. Alice’s (voice of Estelle Hennard) father did “disgusting” things to her that have left her with a scar over her right eye and a tendency toward anxietal tics such as tapping her spoon or intentionally entangling herself in a jump rope. Simon’s (voice of Paulin Jaccoud) parents committed a crime that landed the both of them in jail and their son to the state support system.
They are characters defined by trauma, but the definition isn’t a simple one. That becomes plain upon the introduction of Camille (voice of Sixtine Murat), a new child at the institution. The girl witnessed her father commit suicide after killing her mother, and now her aunt (voice of Brigitte Rosset) verbally abuses and degrades her. The film’s final stretch, which involves an elaborate escape plan for Zucchini and Camille, with Simon’s initially reluctant help, is, on the face of it, an unnecessary addition of external conflict, but the effect is sneaky: The stakes for these characters extend far beyond the film’s story, and their escape from a life of waiting for a new destiny that seems unlikely to come is joyous to behold.
The film’s style contributes a lot to its effect, because such a sad story feels inherently oddball and, thus, absolutely right. The film is a stop-motion creation, featuring characters with unusual proportions, although Zucchini’s strangely sized and shaped head is the oddest of them all. There’s a cute factor to the animation here that is undeniable and attributable to the usual charm of seeing stop-motion in work. The story told with such a style would seem more apt for black-and-white live-action, so the rush of affection for its characters is heightened by such a representational shift. The oxymoron works in My Life as a Zucchini, which is uncommonly powerful for the animation medium, engrossing us in the lives of wounded characters and returning, to some of them, a bit of emotional agency. What a wonderful and sorrowful film this is.