French filmmaker and quirk-maverick Michel Gondry (The Silence of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Mood Indigo) has tackled fresh territory and remained nicely grounded in his sincere new comedy, Microbe & Gasoil [Microbe and Gasoline]. The film has a ramshackle charm, but Gondry mostly sidelines his trademark surrealism. Some weird, ill-judged butt-ins do feel out of place, but this is a very sweet and funny experience-enlightening buddy road-trip with likeable young leads. Sure to warm your heart.
This film is a portrait of two adolescent outsiders, Daniel (Ange Dargent) and Theo (Theophile Baquet) – nicknamed Microbe and Gasoline by their classmates for distinctive personality traits – who decide to spend their otherwise likely-tedious summer vacation on the road in a self-assembled vehicle. Daniel, whose small stature and timid nature have battered his self-esteem, comes out of his shell when the confident and charismatic Theo, who is unfazed by the impression he sets, joins his class.
Both boys are intelligent – Daniel is a promising artist, and Theo a skilled tinkerer after years of working with his father – and they bond through their in-tune sense of humour and respective growing pains. Desiring an escape from their families – Daniel’s mother (Audrey Tautou) is a distracted depressive, and his brothers don’t ‘understand’ him, while Theo is living in the shadow of his older brother in the military – they start to pilfer the items necessary to build a home-on-wheels and escape their unsatisfying bubble. Of course, unexpected mishaps and adolescent impulses challenge their friendship and quality of living along the way.
Their vehicle, equipped with wheel flaps and flower boxes so that it could pose as a house on the side of the road if they ever encounter police, also has a pair of bunk beds and shelving. It is a character in itself, and Gondry takes every opportunity to plumb its potential for a visual gag. Their journey is somewhat instigated by Theo’s wish to revisit a memorable childhood location, but is mostly on a whim and influenced by their navigation skills. The freedom to explore, and the glee in rebellion is enough to drive them on.
It is a self-appointed lesson is self-sufficiency and responsibility as they share secrets and discuss their feelings. Theo is blunt and never minces words, possessing an adult-like wisdom from Daniel’s perspective, while Daniel is reluctant to share. We see him open up, and better understand the personality that leaves him alienated from his classmates, and the crush who doesn’t share his affections. He learns an existential lesson from the impressively world-savvy Theo.
The film is very funny throughout, and often rather touching – and this can be attributed to the boys’ connection and the chemistry between the performers. Baquet, especially, is destined for big things. I was reminded of The Kings of Summer – another coming-of-age tale, about a trio of friends who build a house in the forest to deal with their adolescent angst away from their suffocating families. Whereas that film was quite dour and serious, this is much more pleasant.
There are some strange features that temper the praise a little – the pair find themselves offered unexpected sanctuary by a obsessive dentist, for one – and the film’s unruly second half pushes the runtime too far. But, apt direction from Gondry, whose storytelling abilities are often invaded by his over-obsession with style and effect, and a toe-tapping soundtrack, keep this consistently entertaining.
Microbe and Gasoline is screening around Australia in March as part of the 2016 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. For dates, locations, tickets and the full lineup visit the website – http://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/