My Life as a Zucchini begins bleakly. Our nine-year-old, blue-haired protagonist (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is called Icare—translated in English as “Icarus,” though the allusion hardly seems to matter—but he insists on going by Courgette (“Zucchini”), not because he looks like a vegetable or because a zucchini has any metaphorical relevance, but because it’s a nickname his mother gave him. And within those opening minutes, Zucchini has every reason to cling to a small gift from his mom: The boy, completely by accident, kills her. Nowadays, this is just how Oscar nominated kids movies do.
From there, the film lightens considerably, even though Zucchini, orphaned post-accident, meets a cadre of broken children at the orphanage to which he’s assigned. After winning the begrudging respect of Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), the self-appointed leader of the small group of castaways, Zucchini learns of the plights of his fellow children: abuse, pedophilia, severe mental illness, alcoholism—all of this Simon relates with little understanding, besides that for each child an unthinkable tragedy means there is no one left to love them, and thus they end up there, bound by their foster-less-ness.
Which of course doesn’t seem less bleak than the film’s opening matricide, however unintended, but director Claude Barras never strays from the perspective of the shy, perpetually overwhelmed Zucchini, and so even in the depths of despair, Zucchini’s world is a tactilely warm and rosy place. It helps that Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), a police officer who becomes immediately smitten with the quiet boy, visits Zucchini often, and that the orphanage is a genuinely loving facility, as close as any of these kids have to a stable home. Barras seems wholly unconcerned with the kind of bureaucracy and lack of funding that typically plague such social service institutions, instead set on creating as optimistic a movie as he can despite the pall of dread that seems to hang over these kids’ lives. Perhaps we’re conditioned to expect the worst with stories such as this, so we anticipate something horrible to happen to disrupt the careful lives these children have built for themselves—and (spoiler?) nothing ever does.
Once a new girl, Camille (Sixtine Murat), arrives, Zucchini finds his first love while the rest of the orphans glom onto her as the older sister figure they’ve never had. Even though Simon and Zucchini discover, while snooping through administrative files, that Camille is at the orphanage because she witnessed her father kill her mother, Barras refuses to allow his film to slip into darkness, ready rather to have Zucchini and Camille grow closer by sharing their confusion regarding the incomprehensible world of adults. When Zucchini finally admits, out loud, that he thinks he killed his mom, there isn’t understanding in his statement, just a confirmation of reality: This happened and now life is different because it did.
The film’s stop-motion animation of course lends a surreal, welcoming sumptuousness to Barras’s difficult emotional terrain. Vivid colors convey hopeful inner lives, and the characters’ enormous eyes expose innocence at the core. Meanwhile, Barras’s use of non-professional child actors (who acted out each scene in order to capture these kids’ voices at their least affected) adds an extra layer of sincerity to what could too-easily lapse into melodrama or emotional manipulation. Though hardly groundbreaking—compared to, say, its fellow stop-motion’d Oscar nominee, Kubo and the Two Strings —My Life as a Zucchini is an unbelievably empathetic film, brimming with beautifully small moments. (One that broke my heart: the kids, while on a skiing trip, staring enviably at a loving mother with her child. Just that, and then the film moves on.)
Barras’s most impressive feat—besides keeping the film under 70 minutes—is how effortlessly he gives the film to Zucchini, never once letting the corruption of the adult world stain My Life as a Zucchini’s lively hues and livelier magnanimity. Tonally, Barras struggles in almost every scene, especially when the heaviness of his characters’ lives aren’t given the seriousness such heaviness demands, and optimism threatens to obfuscate the crimes of the adults whose choices led to these kids’ situations so directly. Still, one can’t fault a film too harshly for loving its characters too much to watch them suffer needlessly. If all Barras is trying to say is that human beings are essentially good—contrary to popular opinion at the moment—then that should be enough. One can’t fault an artist too adamantly for adopting the indefatigable idealism of a prepubescent with a pointless nickname.
Director: Claude Barras
Writers: Céline Sciamma (screenplay); Gilles Paris (novel)
Starring: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz
Release Date: February 24, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Sr. Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.