My Life as a Zucchini is Charming and Heartbreaking

There’s a kind of magic that accompanies certain kinds of animation, a sense that, even though it’s not strictly realist, it’s conveying some greater truth about life that simply wouldn’t work with a live action film. My Life as a Zucchini, the Oscar-nominated stop motion film, is enlivened by that magic. Despite a sheen of whimsy, the film is a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking tale of children coping with profound loss.

The titular Zucchini (Gaspard Schlatter) is actually the nickname of 9-year-old Icare, given to him by his mother. He’s introduced alone in his attic bedroom, where he has decorated the walls with his crayon drawings. It’s a stark, spare room, and Zucchini’s only possessions are a diamond-shaped kite and a supply of continuously replenished beer cans. The simple kite has his drawing of a superhero on one side (his absent father) and a chicken on the other side (his mother said his dad always liked “chicks”). The beer cans belong to Zucchini’s mother, an alcoholic who spends her days in front of the TV.

When Zucchini makes a mess of the cans, his mother climbs up the ladder to berate him, and the scared boy closes the ladder door on her head, knocking her down and killing her. When we see Zucchini again, he’s at a police station with Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), the officer assigned to his case. The boy is quiet and reserved rather than weepy—perhaps he knew something like this would happen to his mother one day.

Raymond takes Zucchini to an orphanage, where he’s initially bullied by an older child, Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), though their relationship stabilizes when both children realize they’ve suffered similar losses. Director Claude Barras and the film’s writers are sensitively attuned to the current political climate in France and populate the orphanage with children affected by it. One girl’s mother has been deported back to an African nation, and a Muslim boy is there because his father was imprisoned for holding up a store for a pair of Nikes. Raymond visits Zucchini periodically, and the other children bombard him with water balloons for being a cop—they’ve gone through their own horrors of abuse and parental separation, often mediated by the police.

A new child arrives shortly after Zucchini, a girl named Camille who’s being deposited by her verbally abusive aunt. Zucchini is instantly taken with her, and the two share an innocent puppy love. The characters in My Life as a Zucchini are designed rather simply, not much more than round heads with little features added on, but the animators are able to create a wealth of emotions from those rudimentary faces. The night after Zucchini first meets Camille, he lays in bed staring at the ceiling with a faint smile that perfectly conveys his new-found infatuation. It’s a small but moving detail. Rather than using the animation style to explore the more fantastical possibilities of the medium, My Life as a Zucchini is concerned with conveying the tiniest details of these children’s lives. In a Q & A session following a screening at Los Angeles’s Nuart Theater, Barras explained that the purpose of the animation was to add a sense of poetry to the movie, as well as softening its rougher edges. It might have been possible to craft a live action version of this film, perhaps in the style of Ken Loach’s Kes, but that film would have been an oppressive mess without the addition of Zucchini’s poetry.

The movie’s veracity is aided by its cast of non-professional child actors. They lack the annoying self-awareness that often infects professional child actors or the adult voiceover artists who impersonate them. These actors downplay their emotions in a more realistic fashion. Instead of doing traditional voiceover recordings like most animated films, six weeks were spent filming a live-action version of the movie prior to any animation. The animators were able to use the actors’ own expressions to craft their stop motion doppelgangers.

Although spare in decoration, the culture of the orphanage rings true. Anyone who has visited a similar institution will recognize the display on the wall where children mark their mood for the day, both a warning and a guide for their caretakers. Barras spent three weeks visiting an orphanage to prepare for the film, and one of the writers spent a whole year observing to ensure that it was neither the Dickensian hellhole so often shown in American films, nor some kind of Peter Pan-like utopia for orphaned children.

At times the film abandons it’s more realist tendencies, especially in sequences involving clandestine recordings of an abusive caretaker, but most of the movie is filled with more bittersweet aspects of life. The film lacks the digital glitter of its better known Oscar competitors, but the subtle pleasures of My Life is a Zucchini have their own special charms.

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