The French filmmaker Michel Gondry will always be a cinematic hero to me for giving us the waking-dream masterpiece “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” as well as lesser but still fascinating works such as “Be Kind Rewind.”
(“The Green Hornet,” not so much.)
Now comes “Microbe and Gasoline,” said to be very loosely based on Gondry’s childhood memories. It’s a quirky and unique coming-of-age story about two 14-year-old outcasts who form a lasting bond while hitting the road in a motorized shack of their own making.
Because of course.
Ange Dargent gives a natural, low-key performance as the likable and eccentric Daniel, who is so small and underdeveloped for his age, one teacher mistakes him for a girl and his unwanted nickname is “Microbe.”
Theophile Baquet is equally effective as the new kid in school — the outwardly confident, attention-seeking Theo, aka “Gasoline.”
At outset of summer vacation, the boys take an old lawnmower motor, bring it back to life, build a tiny house of sorts atop a frame — and they hit the road. (One nifty touch: When the vehicle is parked, the boys can flip a handle that disguises the wheels and makes the thing look like a dilapidated little shed, the better for the police to ignore.)
One of the boys isn’t being honest with the other about their final destination, but as with road movies of just about every shape and size, it’s not about the end game, it’s about the journey.
Along the way, Microbe and Gasoline have all sorts of adventures, from the comedic to the harrowing. They’re in way over their heads in a Korean massage parlor. They have a bizarre encounter with a middle-aged couple of empty-nesters who are into the pop singer Shakira. A stolen football leads to a crazy chase scene and a hilarious peace treaty.
“Microbe and Gasoline” is set in present day, but Gondry is clearly drawing upon his own youth. The boys’ dress and hairstyles are out of the 1980s, they prefer paper maps to GPS and Daniel’s passion is drawing, as in old-fashioned drawing with colored pencils on paper.
An almost unrecognizable Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) plays Daniel’s laid-back mother, who encourages his artistry but sometimes seems oblivious to his world.
Dargent and Baquet look and sound like actual 14-year-old boys and not 22-year-old actors playing 14-year-old boys. That’s probably because they WERE young teenagers when the movie was made, and neither had a ton of professional acting experience — so their work seems natural.
This is Gondry’s most straightforward film to date, but even his most mainstream work is a little out there and at times can be a tad self-conscious or even off-putting. That happens more than once with “Microbe and Gasoline.”
Mostly, though, we appreciate the unique personalities of these two kids, and we’re glad they found each other.
It gives them a fighting chance to get through high school.
Screen Media Films presents a film written and directed by Michel Gondry. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for some sex-related material involving young teens). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.