Stop-Motion Tenderness Amidst Darkness Can Be Found in “My Life as a Zucchini”

Zucchini (with the blue hair, in front) and friends, in "My Life as a Zucchini"
Zucchini (with the blue hair, in front) and his orphan friends, in “My Life as a Zucchini”

Please don’t let the oddball title put you off; My Life as a Zucchini is a charmer, well worth tracking down.  The first full-length movie by Swiss director Claude Barras, it deservedly earned a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod.  Much as I enjoyed the ultimate winner, Zootopia, Barras’ film would’ve received the golden statuette, had it been up to me.

When most animated movies today are predictably geared towards young audiences and stuffed with bombast, comic relief sidekicks, and sensory overload, My Life as a Zucchini stands out as something different.  Empathically telling the story of a curiously named boy facing traumatic times, it opts for a gentler tone.  Its subject matter also means that Zucchini is aiming for an older audience.  (In interviews, the director has suggested its suitability for those 15 and above, which seems reasonable to me.)

Barras’ film opens with Zucchini, an imaginative 9 year old, flying a handmade kite out his attic bedroom’s window.  A photo on his dresser shows him with his mother in an earlier, happier era, but now the kite symbolizes his wish to escape an unhappy existence.  His single mother has turned dour and neglectful, spending her days and nights endlessly quaffing beer and shouting at the television.

When his mom dies suddenly, it falls to a kindly policeman to transport Zucchini to “The Fountains,” an orphanage populated by five other unfortunates.  Simon, a red-headed resident, initially taunts him, but soon enough he and Zucchini have bonded.  When Zucchini is smitten with a new arrival named Camille, the two of them even make a nocturnal foray into the administrator’s office to read the girl’s case history.

My Life as a Zucchini is told completely from a child’s-eye perspective.  This lends a poignancy to the children’s explanations for how they ended up at The Fountains, with reasons including parental abuse, mental illness, and addiction.  At other times, it adds humor, as when one of their teachers becomes pregnant, and the kids pool their collective knowledge of the birds and the bees.

Zucchini’s visual style is a delight to behold.  Barras has cited inspirations that range from Tim Burton to African art and the portraits of Modigliani.  One can see this melding of influences in the implausibly enlarged heads and eyes of his stop-motion puppets, and the overly bright coloration of ears, noses, and hair.  Permanently affixed bandages or scars represent the inner trauma suffered by the youngsters.  Other touches are winsomely quirky, like boxy cars with tiny wheels and plump, bug-eyed birds.

Zucchini and his police officer friend, in "My Life as a Zucchini"
Zucchini and his police officer friend Raymond, in “My Life as a Zucchini”

Although only the puppets’ eyes and mouths change expression, their subtle variations still convey a breadth of emotion.  This is aided, too, by the uniformly excellent voice acting of the children at the heart of Zucchini.  (I saw the subtitled version of the film; hopefully, the English language dubbing is just as good, since they recruited big-name actors like Nick Offerman and Ellen Page for the job.)  It helps as well that Zucchini has a smart screenplay by Celine Sciamma, herself a director of a handful of coming-of-age movies.

My Life as a Zucchini obviously doesn’t shy away from the darker potential of childhood, but at its core, this is a hopeful film.  With its benevolent cop and kindly orphanage workers, it’s a tribute of sorts to social services done right.  The relationships formed by the kids also show the resilience of youth when given the opportunity to heal.  Despite a couple of scenes of mildly over-the-top hijinks, Zucchini ultimately feels authentic in the emotions and optimism it generates.

4 out of 5 stars

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