Seeing the world through a child’s eyes can be pretty eye-opening.
Watching “My Life as a Zucchini,” the altogether marvelous and Oscar-nominated stop-action animated film by director Claude Barras, that world is one you will not soon forget.
Though a French-language film with English subtitles, “Zucchini” has also been dubbed in English, with a stellar voiceover cast that includes Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Amy Sedaris and Ellen Page. Both are screening at the Music Box Theatre. It is the English version I am reviewing here, but regardless of language, this film speaks volumes about the human condition. About childhood. About loss. About family. About unconditional love.
The film tells the story of 9-year-old Zucchini (his real name is Icare [pronounced Ee-cahr] — French for Icarus — which you may recall from Greek mythology) who spends his days drawing colorful images on the walls of his attic bedroom, and flying a kite out his window. He lives with his alcoholic mother, whom we never see, but we hear clearly and loudly — as she berates her young son, watches television and drinks beer. A lot of beer. In fact, Zucchini collects her empty cans; it’s the only real tie that binds him to his mother. With his blue hair and big, brown eyes, Zucchini is captivating from the get-go. When a most unexpected turn of events results in his mother’s accidental death and he is sent to a group home for kids who are also devoid of parents (for assorted reasons) our heart aches for the tiny tot.
At the home, which turns out to be a warm, loving environment for the kids, Zucchini (voiced by Erick Abbate) befriends the other five occupants: the red-haired “boss” Simon (Romy Beckman); the shy Ahmed (Barry Mitchell), whose father was jailed for stealing a pair of sneakers for his young son; the retreating Alice (Clara Young), whose father we surmise was a creep; the expressive Georgie (Finn Robbins), whose mom suffers from mental illness, and Beatrice (Olivia Bucknor), the dark-skinned girl whose mom was deported. Soon they are joined by a new arrival, the lovely Camille (Ness Krell), whose rather despicable aunt (Amy Sedaris) only wants the child for the government funding she receives for her care. Camille and Zucchini become smitten, as only a 9- and 10-year-old can.
Their world is a simple one: You eat meals with your friends, share a bedroom with your buddies, go to school, take a field trip to a snowy lodge, and yes, come to terms with what has happened to bring everyone to this place. As Simon matter-of-factly sums it up: “We’re all the same. There’s nobody left to love us.” It is a most heartwrenching moment, but never played for tears. In fact, the entire film is an unflinching slice of reality pie, which sets it wondrously apart from most of the usual kid-story movie treacle.
Barras’ film, with a straightforward and moving script by Celine Sciamma (based on the Gilles Paris young adult novel), utilizes 10-inch-tall plasticine figurines that come to life through the painstaking process of stop-action animation. There is nothing digitally high-tech about it, but the result is all the more gratifying. The backgrounds are colored-pencil gems, flat and vast, yet the perfect backdrop for the intricate movement of the foreground inhabitants. Sophie Hunger’s haunting score, mostly solo guitar, is soul-stirring.
There are several twists to this idyllic life, wherein the kids are cared for by a warm headmistress, Miss Patterson (Susanne Blakeslee), and her assistant Rosy (Ellen Page), and where Zucchini is visited by the friendly policeman Raymond (Nick Offerman), who drove him to the group home in the first place and who will play a most significant role in the young boy’s life. I won’t reveal the details here, as you must experience the emotional punches the storyline packs as it unfolds.
What I will reveal is one of the film’s best sequences, where the children, introduced to Rosy’s newborn child, recite a litany of “what ifs” — asking her if there’s anything the child could do that would make her give up the baby. “What if he’s bad at school?” “Even if he scribbles on the walls?” “Even if he’s ugly?” “Even if his neck is long like a giraffe?” The questions fly fast and furiously. It is this list that tears at your heart, as the children voice the innermost reasons they believe to be the causes of their station in life.
All they want is the unconditional love that every child deserves from a truly loving and caring parent. Even if, as one child asks, he or she smells bad? Yes, even then.
GKids presents a film directed by Claude Barras and written by Celine Sciamma, based on the novel “Autobiographie D’Une Courgette,” by Gilles Paris. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and suggestive material). In French, with English subtitles, or dubbed in English. Running time: 66 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.