Screening at the 2016 Alliance Française French Film Festival. For festival tickets and session details visit the official website HERE.
High school is never a good time for anyone. Extremities of discomfit may vary. From basic growing pains to unappeasable bullying, the levels of awkwardness are so insidious and multi-faceted that practically no one escapes fully unscathed by the experience. Reflecting on that time of life is poignant however –not merely due to years of therapy, but due to commonality. We relate to the better films about teenage-hood (think more Stand by Me and less American Pie) because we see in them parts of both our individual and shared experiences. (Well, there might be some people whose experience involved sex with an apple pie.) Microbe & Gasoline is a film in that mould, a very sweet, née bittersweet coming of age directed by the talented Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Daniel (Ange Dargent) is fourteen, quiet and artistic; because he is small in stature and looks younger than his age, the people at school call him Microbe. Daniel meets Theo (Théophile Baquet), a new boy at school whose nickname, Gasoline, is derived from the smell he gathers by tinkering around with old engine parts. Recognising in each other the independent spirit of the mutual outsider, they bond, and finally hatch a scheme to build a makeshift car out of old parts. They follow through, attaching an old 10cc engine to a contraption dressed like a garden shed, and take off on a hapless road trip based out of desperation to escape the drabness of their awkward teenage lives.
One of the things that distinguishes Microbe & Gasoline from a lot of other movies about adolescence is that it values intellect, in its characters and in general. Gondry is not interested in pandering to a lowest common denominator conception of youth. Daniel and Theo are both smart; they have pseudo-philosophic conversations and their interests extend to the deeper questions of life. That is not to say the film is pretentious, but merely, it prizes intelligence as a core human value. What makes it charming is the lack of affectation with which this is purported, and the balance it strikes with realistic childishness, where in the end, there is no mistaking the movie’s teenagers for anything other than they are.
Compared to Gondry’s other films, which sometimes transpire around intricate, sometimes labyrinthine concepts, Microbe & Gasoline is notable for its basic simplicity. What it does maintain is the sense of humanity that is one of his strong points as a director. In some ways, its bears a similarity to David Lynch’s The Straight Story (about an old man travelling on a lawnmower to see a friend), although Microbe & Gasoline is more light-hearted and more effortlessly entertaining. Nevertheless, it is a departure for Gondry because it scales back on the more grandiose ambitions to which he is prone.
The dichotomy of Microbe & Gasoline is that while its basicness, simple storytelling and humanity are its strong points, these factors also make the film un-extraordinary and familiar. Having said that, because it has warmth, charm and wit to spare, it would be hard to recommend pleasanter company than Gondry’s film.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10