Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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