Directed by Claude Barras
The puppets in My Life as a Zucchini have sunken, haunted eyes. Their like characters from a Tim Burton film, and their design certainly underscores their lonely lives. Zucchini is a boy who believes he may have killed his mother and so is sent to a small orphanage with other kids who are all haunted by the circumstances that have brought them here.
The film presents these characters with a certain amount of whimsy, and it’s not hard to miss the deep, deep sadness that permeates the film. One girl will quickly run outside calling “Mommy!” anytime a new car pulls up, only to discover that her mom still remains deported. Another boy’s dad is in jail for petty theft, and many of the others don’t have any parents at all.
Zucchini’s tragedy is made more tragic by his accidental killing of his mother. Already a somber little boy, making towers out of his father’s empty beer cans, Zucchini’s loneliness grows in this orphanage where one of the boys, Simon, routinely bullies him. Pretty quickly, however, they bond as Simon tells him that every kid hear is haunted by something, and so begins a heartwarming tale of kids looking out for each other.
Zucchini is drawn to a new girl, Camille, who soon arrives alongside her abusive aunt, and soon they fall in love, or the child version of love, which I guess is love, maybe even more pure than adult love when you think about it, but that might not be true either, really childlike love is pure, like the love a puppy has for you, but it hasn’t really weathered any storms whether puberty, life and the compromises choosing a life for yourself demands. But they fall in love.
Everything goes quite nicely until Camille’s aunt tries to take her away, so Simon and the others help Zucchini run away with her, hitching a ride with a cop who frequently visits Zucchini, having been introduced to him after his mother’s death. The aunt finds out and takes Camille away, but Simon sneaks her a recording device which she uses to record her aunt, revealing how unsuited she is to be her guardian.
Ands just like that, the makeshift family is reunited! But then Simon finds out that the cop plans on adopting both Zucchini and Camille, which makes him jealous and angry. Camille takes to him, calms him down, and they leave. Happy in their new home, Camille and Zucchini write Simon a letter about how they love him, a callback to earlier in the film when Simon told Zucchini that no one loves any of them.
This is a simple, quick story, but it’s so goddamned touching. The characters all feel so delicate, partially due to the stop-motion nature of the film, like you could push them over with a strong breeze. They’re all so brittle, but they find strength with each other, forming their own family.
Maybe it’s just that this film is in French that I feel the need to compare it to Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). Both are about kids who are forced to grow up on their own. Malle’s film deals with a boarding school where kids are shipped off and forced to exist amongst this adolescent community, away from their parents. The 400 Blows follows Antoine Doinel, a kid who insists on running away, ditching school, his home and most of his life altogether.
These are kids who don’t feel they have the comforts of a typical childhood. In the case of Doinel, there is a scene in which the troublemaker is asked a series of questions that were improvised, asked directly to the actor (Jean-Pierre Leaud). It’s a touching scene, filled with natural, unscripted moments and shines a light on this boy’s innocence, even as he’s forced to grow up too fast. At the end of Zucchini, there is a similar moment. The camera shows Zucchini answering questions tossed his way from offscreen. It seems to be the director asking the voice actor a few questions, and the boy remarks that, if given the part, he would like to change Zucchini’s name, prompting them to laugh. They chose to animate this moment, likely an homage to The 400 Blows.
Maybe it really is just the French language that makes this film feel as somber and eventually heartwarming as it is.
Up Next: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Some Like It Hot (1959), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)