** This review reflects the original French language version, which will play at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in DC during the evening performances; matinees will feature the English-dubbed version. **
What a joyful celebration of life My Life as a Zucchini (original French title: Ma vie De Courgette) is, being a film extolling the resilient spirit of the young in the face of life-altering events. Of course, real life seldom works the way it does in this film, but the film uses its running time to make us believe it can. Based on Gilles Paris’ novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette, the story weaves rather dark elements into its fabric of hope, empathy, and love, and its animation often masks how truly horrifying life can be sometimes.
However, those elements – hope, empathy, and love – are just what help our characters triumph over their turmoil-ridden lives. Paris’ story takes us into the world of Icare (Gaspard Schlatter), who wants to be known as Courgette (“zucchini” in French), as that’s his mother’s nickname for him. We’re never told why he’s called Courgette nor why he wants to keep that name, especially after we see his mother as a drunken sot who yells at the TV and abuses her child.
Courgette is the wide-eyed hopeful we all wish we – and our own children – could be. It’s not like he lives in a fantasy world; he knows what’s real and what’s not. But he still believes in the inherent good found in others, a belief he needs to hold onto after he’s put in an orphanage following a horrible accident. Schlatter voices Courgette with precious care in his first film role, capturing innocence, mischief, and a good heart with his simple and natural delivery. (Be sure to stay tuned during the credits to see some bonus animation concerning Schlatter and his audition interview with the filmmakers.)
It’s that heart which manages to defuse the toughest kid at the orphanage, a boy named Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) who seems to rule the roost. Boasting a fiery temper to match his red-orange hair, Simon is a wellspring of misguided anger and mistrust, but there lies a gentle soul beneath the bravado. Simon, like the other children, has come to the orphanage due to negligent parenting; his and the others’ lives are discussed in frank terms, a result of being forced to grow up too fast. Parents’ drug use, sexual abuse, and murder-suicide are just some of the examples of why Courgette has gone from living in an attic to having a roommate who wets the bed.
Terrifying backgrounds notwithstanding, the orphanage propels the children into a world of love, from the headmaster and the teachers on down. Courgette’s arrival seems to change the dynamic between Simon and the rest of the kids, who seem to have come to accept Simon’s bullying, but they haven’t accepted him as a friend. The arrival of fellow orphan Camille (Sixtine Murat) seems to kickstart Courgette’s own feelings, long since lost to daydreams under his mother’s watch.
It’s an idealized world which My Life as a Zucchini presents us… but it’s a start. Your family may not be the one into which you’re born, but rather the one you earn as life goes on. Zucchini barely had a family before coming to the orphanage, but he winds up with more brothers, sisters, and caring parent figures than he could ever hope for. The film may not be exactly family-friendly due to descriptions of a child’s (mis)understanding about sex and the allegations made about the orphans’ parents (there is no foul language at all, though), but it’s a marvelous movie about the ethereal warmth and loving spirit found in the world through a child’s eyes.