There’s this pervasive idea that children are resilient, that they’re able to cope well even in dire circumstances. In stories about forlorn kids, a combination of optimistic pluck and boundless imagination helps them through their troubled years.
It’s a very nice fiction. Kids are resilient to some extent, but it’s born of ignorance and necessity. Years later, there’s no telling what their hurts will do to them.
Claude Barras’ My Life as a Zucchini explores the bleakness that some children have to bear. It’s about orphaned victims of trauma and neglect. The Oscar-nominated film is based on a memoir by Gilles Paris, which is apparently much darker than the film. While pluck and imagination help with the dark days, what ultimately gets these kids through the bleakness of their lives is the sense that they are not alone. This is a film about how fragile we can be, and how much we depend on the love of others.
[This film screened at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which runs from February 24th to March 19th. For tickets, a screening schedule, and more information, visit the official NYICFF website.]
My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)
Director: Claude Barras
Release Date: October 19, 2016 (France/Switzerland); February 24, 2017 (limited)
My Life as a Zucchini opens with the accidental death of a boy’s abusive, alcoholic mother. His father isn’t around and never shows up, but he draws an idealized, superhero version of him on a homemade kite. The boy calls himself Zucchini (Erick Abbate), and as a police officer drives him to an orphanage, he flies the kite out of the car window. The moment is both beautiful and sad, just like so many other moments in My Life is a Zucchini.
The other children at the orphanage are neglected, have had their parents deported, lost their parents in violent ways, or were physically or sexually abused. They’re each around 10 years old. This is absolutely bleak material, and it’s reflected in the look of the stop-motion puppets of the children. When a new girl named Camille (Ness Krell) arrives, one of the children remarks that she has sad eyes. It’s a quality all of the children share. They all have huge, Margaret Keane-painting eyes, but they look wounded rather than doe-like, as if each of them might burst into tears at any moment out of sadness or a fleeting joy.
While the situations these children face are so dark, My Life as a Zucchini is a hopeful film, and brimming with sympathy and empathy. I found myself crying through a lot of the film, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the animation. There’s something important about the tactile nature of stop-motion I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s because the characters look like toys, and the settings feel like playsets--like the entire film functions as a space for a child to work through the dark things in their head.
The English-language voice acting is commendable. The child actors sounded like actors rather than kids acting, if the distinction makes sense. Abbate and Krell have to do so much heavylifting whenever their characters are on screen, but there’s no strain to it. I was so wrapped up in the emotion of the film that I didn’t sense a flat line read or a sour delivery. Somehow, effortlessly, the child actors sounded vulnerable and true. The adult voice cast was good as well, with Nick Offerman, Will Forte, and Ellen Page disappearing into their roles as caretakers. Amy Sedaris’ voice was distinct--very Strangers with Candy--though it fits with the brash, prickly character she portrays.
Barras depicts kindness in various gestures between the kids and their caretakers at the orphanage. There’s a snow trip with a tiny techno dance party in a cabin. There’s play time. There’s dress up and parties. When the children grow up, the psychological repercussions of what they’ve faced might be daunting, but at least there’s this orphanage and these people who care about them. The adults try to create some semblance of a normal life free from from solitude and abuse. Things that seems so commonplace are suddenly imbued with a tremendous expression of love and humanity. How good it is, even if just briefly, to give someone the joy of a carefree childhood.
My Life as a Zucchini is about children, but it’s not a children’s movie. That may have held it back in awards season. It was such a longshot to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar (Zootopia took both awards), and its bleakness didn’t help matters. The film did wind up winning Best Animated Film and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Cesar Awards, however. Saying all this, part of me wonders how traumatized children might respond to the film. Would they feel less alone? Would they feel loved? Those concerns are more important than a statuette; they’re what’s most important in life.