Animated Releases: Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Zucchini) (2017) - Reviewed

Some films are just so astoundingly adept at dealing with dour, depressing subject matter with just the right amounts of comedy and pathos that one comes away from having viewed them with the sense that they have experienced something absolutely real. Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Zucchini), animated in clay stop-motion and directed by Claude Barras, is such a film; it is a rare feat of delica

cy that brings to life the tale of a nine-year-old boy orphaned at the accidental death of his alcoholic mother and his quest to find his place among a group of troubled children in a youth group home. The film doesn’t coddle its characters, or mold them into clich├ęs – it is, instead, a stark narrative into the minds of children whose lives were uprooted by the poor decisions of their parents, and reads very much like we are eavesdropping on the outsider children’s slumber party. The intimacy of childhood relationships, strange as they are, are explored with admirable finesse.

Courgette – in English, Zucchini – is himself a bit of a cipher; his personality is colored in by the things we never quite come to fully understand about him.  His relationship with his mother is only hinted at as complicated and melancholy; she is represented posthumously as a salvaged empty beer can Zucchini keeps tucked beside the hand-decorated kite he associates with his departed father, and the two objects come to represent who he is as a character as they symbolize the pieces of his heart. Indeed, it is the pieces of his mother and father together which build Zucchini up and allow him to forge relationships with the other children, and with Raymond, the policeman who found him and continues to visit him at the orphanage. It is through these objects, and the crayon drawings Zucchini sends to his friend to tell him about his life at the home, that we really get to know the boy as a character and how he relates to others.

Mama always is like a box of chocolates.

The real brilliance of this film is in the way it treats each of the children, not as the amalgamations of the traumatic events they have witnessed and gone through, but as individuals with hope and potential. They are not defined by their pasts, though they are clearly affected by them; while it would have been easy to design the resident bully, Simon, as a one-dimensional thug jaded in having been abandoned when his parents were sent to prison for drug use, he is instead illustrated as a complex young person battling feelings of deep resentment toward a whole world he feels has turned its back on him and those like him. He rises from his petty antagonism and becomes one of the strongest allies Zucchini has, and is revealed to take his role in the orphanage of a sort of “big brother” figure quite seriously.

Zucchini’s journey finds its most poignant meaning when he meets Camille, a girl who comes to the home hoping to escape the clutches of a cruel and abusive aunt desiring to adopt Camille for the money she would receive. The nascent prepubescent romance between the girl and boy is detailed tenderly, as something developing naturally between them through an abiding and caring friendship that buoys both of them through even their darkest fears. Camille and Zucchini bring out in each other the optimistic future at the heart of the entire film – holding onto each other’s hands, their supportive love is tangible and strong, and the suggestion that there will be lifelong connections between all of these children no matter what happens to them reminds us that it doesn’t matter so much where we come from or what we go through. What matters is who we are, how we are shaped by what happens to us, and who is there with us when all is said and done.

I sense a snowball fight is coming. 

Animated with beautiful imperfection, Ma vie de Courgette is a stop-motion study in the inner lives of children who have been expected to grow up far before their time, in some very brutal and unfair ways. But the saucer-eyed, Paul Berry-esque waifs of Barras’s film will touch the heartstrings – not because they are caricatures, or because they are sentimentalized, as many children tend to be in fiction. These characters will stick with the audience long after the credits roll because they are people, fleshed out in colorful clay designs and the dark psychological elements of spoiled innocence.

A rare film indeed, with a narrative and emotional depth that respects not only its characters, but the heart and intelligence of its audience. When the credits roll, the heart swells – and soars alongside Zucchini’s handmade superhero kite.


-Dana Culling