“Well, I think I killed my mum”
You have to respect when a story targeted towards children is allowed to possess pathos. Take Gilles Paris‘ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une courgette for example—a 228-page piece centering on a nine-year old boy’s experience living as an orphan in France after accidentally killing his mother. This is the kind of dark subject matter many parents wouldn’t let their children go near and yet it also contains a hopeful strain of optimism and love those same kids crave. But even if some readers aren’t allowed access to young “Zucchini’s” (his real name is Icarus) journey because of parental fear, there are orphans experiencing this same roller coaster of emotions that need it to understand they aren’t alone. No matter how dire things seem, love will remain in reach.
So while it may seem odd director Claude Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma would adapt this tale into a colorful stop-motion animated film entitled Ma vie de Courgette [My Life as a Zucchini], it’s not. I’ll admit that an opening prologue of Zucchini (Gaspard Schlatter) drawing on a kite in the attic of his house with beer cans strewn about while his mother drank and yelled at the TV below was jarring. The events that led to her untimely demise while clouds rolled in and lightning struck before showing the boy being scooped up by Raymond the policeman (Michel Vuillermoz) were devastating. Seeing it all brought to life by a blue-haired clay figurine, however, brought me closer into the material. Children endure tragedy just as much as adults.
Eventually the medium fades away and you begin to simply watch as Zucchini’s circumstances evolve. This could have easily been adapted into a live action movie, but going that route would add too much realism. Once you start watching adult actors do despicable things to their child actor victims, it becomes too mature for the target audience. The Claymation therefore rounds some of those corners and may even trick a few lazy parents into letting their kids watch due to the “animation” alone (this is why Sausage Party prominently displayed its R-rating). So while the medium doesn’t really add anything stylistically to the subject matter, it does provide it a wider net of accessibility. Placing it into the “family outing” conversation this way is extremely important today.
You can expect an authentic depiction of adolescence with a healthy side portion of real psychological hardships while watching. We’re shown examples of bullying via Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), the brazen smart aleck, as well as the thawing of enemies into friends with more in common than their defenses will initially let them believe. We’re shown the compassion of adults who take being responsible for a brood or orphans as more than a job. Madam Papineau (Monica Budde), Mr. Paul (Adrien Barazzone), and Miss Rosy (Véronique Montel) have made this place as much their home as it is the children’s. Beyond being guardians and disciplinarians, they without fail keep an open ear. They sense the subtext of actions and protect their wards from all dangers, including their own families.
Simon is the result of drug-addicted parents, Ahmed (Raul Ribera) wets the bed, Jujube (Elliot Sanchez) can’t stop eating his sorrows, Alice (Estelle Hennard) is prone to involuntary fits of motion, and Béatrice (Lou Wick) cannot hear an approaching car without running to the door in hopes that it’s her mother. Every one of them is tragic beyond repair and yet they learn that they have each other nonetheless. Just because the families that should have protected them couldn’t doesn’t mean this new cobbled together one won’t. It doesn’t mean their relationship with each other is less important or less pure either. Love comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes these kids merely want to be acknowledged. They just hope they won’t simply fade away.
The orphanage’s inner-workings are pretty much the extent of the main plot. How Zucchini adjusts and helps his new friends open up from the darkness of their memories is the true impetus for the project. The way this manifests is through yet another newcomer in Camille (Sixtine Murat). Her past is the most horrible of all—if you could honestly judge them on a subjective scale—and yet she remains childlike and happy even if her eyes betray her. She has a relative willing to take her in to receive the government assistance doing so provides and therefore needs saving by the end. The kids rally behind her and show they haven’t disappeared yet. Life will always be difficult, but they have each other to survive it.
How things turn out is hardly surprising (I believe some changes have been made from the book as far as details, not themes or emotions), but this type of story is better off for it. Paris’ intent wasn’t to provide children a cautionary tale of despair upon despair; he sought to show it was possible to escape that despair. For all the nightmarish scenarios presented, Camille’s aunt is the only bona fide villain. Everyone else is the epitome of concerned citizen and empathetic protector. Think Short Term 12 for ten year olds and you can begin to understand the delicate balance between present depression and future hope supplied. In the end My Life as a Zucchini‘s success is in reminding kids that they aren’t to blame. Things will turn around.
Note: Stay during the credits to see a fun animated look at Paulin Jaccoud’s screen test and a request he makes should he receive the role.
courtesy of GKIDS