Dancers at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage disco would call themselves “children,” an affectionate nickname for participants in gay subculture who had struck out on their own, pursuing desires and fulfillment, despite their fears and in the face of mainstream culture’s disapproval. My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film that understands the distinction of that queer soubriquet.
Based on an actual children’s book, My Life as a Zucchini by French author Gilles Paris, this is the debut film of Claude Barras whose digital animated figures portray the story of Icare, a loveless orphan who nonetheless clings to the affection he infers from his mother’s nickname for him—Zucchini (Courgette, in French, sounds nicer).
That sobriquet could be heard as a dehumanizing, as “Other-ing,” or as queering. But Icare isn’t alone. He finds community in a foster home with other abandoned children and their banding together becomes as joyful and supportive as a night at the Paradise Garage.
Barras’s children’s faces are doll-like, the kind of toys now considered gender-neutral. They move like puppets but their big eyes express such imploring humanity that one readily identifies with the emotions they display—unlike the cynical Minions of Despicable Me. If this was a live-action childhood story like Francois Truffaut’s 1976 Small Change there might have been a strong tendency to be patronizing and political about the orphans’ crisis—problems from physical abuse, sexual assault, immigration problems and terrible isolation of being different.
Celine Sciamma (who wrote and directed the wonderful Girlhood) adapted the screenplay. She avoids being obvious and, very importantly, avoids Pixar-style obviousness. Sciamma uses charming subtlety in a tradition that recalls Albert Lamourisse’s The Red Balloon, the great, humanist allegory that was part of the regular school syllabus when I was a kid. The opening scene of Icare building a kite unmistakably evokes The Red Balloon.
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Sciamma and Barras’s sophistication about social behavior might go over the heads of most kids, but not of Paradise Garage children. Sciamma and Barras appeal to adult awareness which makes the disco scene, a carnival ride and an airy bedroom full of jungle-like vegetation a delight to behold. The filmmakers sustain a balance between innocence, horrors and empathy by understanding childhood experience. It’s the best sentimentality. The orphans frowning response when sighting a scheming foster parent’s black underwear returns the original meaning of now politicized “nasty woman.” The filmmakers’ tactfulness is always witty and multileveled as when Icare’s mother throws a beer can at a TV and shouts “Liar!” or the scene of an accident as meaningful as the most subtly violent moment in The Wizard of Oz.
Barras studied anthropology while majoring in digital design and that might account for the intelligence of making thoughtful, non-formulaic animation Most animated films are conceived as babysitting vehicles—time-killers intended to pacify the little crumbcrushers. Overrated Pixar’s overrated movies (like the condescending Finding Dory) follow a formulaic narrative (leave home/struggle to return home) without providing surprise or delight; Pixar merely trains kids and parents in the consumer habit. Barras and Sciamma use animation that reconnects audiences to their innocence and their humanity. Best of all, their colors are smooth and intense like finger paints. Remember them? These radiant colors that recall Pedro Almodovar at his dreamlike best. My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film for gay kids of all ages.