Childhood is not for sissies. Not all children are lucky enough to be raised by a loving family in a safe home. But marginalized kids get their own story in the eloquent and affecting animated feature, My Life as a Zucchini. Directed by Claude Barras, this Oscar-nominated feature is a gently told tale that faces the dark side of childhood, yet offers the possibility of redemption through humor, friendship, and love.
A Swiss-born animation filmmaker who works in France, Barras based his story on an adult novel about kids in crisis written by Gilles Paris. Barras makes it more family-friendly by focusing on the solidarity of children together in a group home after the worst of their individual crises have passed.
The protagonist is a 9-year-old boy who prefers to be called “Zucchini,” the nickname bestowed by his mother. She’s an embittered single mom who drinks too much beer and neglects him, when she’s not threatening to thrash him. But she’s the devil he knows, so when she is suddenly out of the picture (a surprisingly sobering event that happens in the first 10 minutes), Zucchini is full of dread to suddenly be on his own.
A soft-hearted policeman named Raymond takes an interest in the boy and delivers him to a group home for kids who have lost their families. If their parents are still alive, they are drug addicts, or prison inmates, or mentally ill, or otherwise too incapacitated to care for them. One boy’s mom has been deported. As another boy explains to Zucchini, “There’s no one left to love us.”
The usual tribal testing occurs when the new kid arrives, and Zucchini has to stake out his territory and stand up to the red-haired bully, Simon. But it soon becomes apparent that what the children have in common with each other—their painful past lives, and their instinct for survival—is more important than their differences. There may be teasing and taunting, but when the chips are down, these kids stand together against any adversary from the outside world.
Plot complications include the arrival of a new girl, Camille, whose family history has been particularly awful. Yet her response is to treat the other kids with extra empathy, so she is soon beloved by all—especially the smitten Zucchini. But Camille has a scheming aunt who’s angling to obtain custody of the girl she cares nothing about just so she can receive government assistance.
Despite its serious subtext, the film has a playful, often joyous tone as the kids explore their world and search for their places in it. Zucchini likes to draw, and his crayon portraits of the other kids and their activities add an extra layer of humor and charm. When one of the younger boys asks Simon (from his vast store of knowledge on the subject) how grown-ups make babies, and Simon cobbles together an answer out of hearsay and guesswork, Zucchini’s drawings illustrate that, too.
Other visual elements in the film are more subtle, but just as rich. Scenes in the office of the headmistress reveal paintings by Joan Miro and Paul Klee on the wall behind her desk. And it makes perfect sense that Camille—all too ready to escape the cocoon of her past—is shown reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. (There’s no title, but we can see the cockroach on the cover.)
Barras’ technique is a sophisticated update of classic stop-motion clay animation. Each character is originally modeled in clay and painted, then an articulated puppet is made of each character, and coated in silicone, which is rendered to approximate the surface and texture of clay on camera. But expressive details like lips, eyelids, and eyebrows, in various positions, are molded in clay and painstakingly applied to be shot one frame at a time.
It’s a laborious process—especially for a small, independent studio like Barras’ with only 10 staff animators. But the result is obviously a labor of love.
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
*** (out of four)
Written by Céline Sciamma. From the novel by Gilles Paris. Directed by Claude Barras. A Gkids release. Rated PG-13. 68 minutes.