Microbe & Gasoline
Directed by Michel Gondry
Opens July 1
Ah, youth. Those salad days when you could hang out with your best friend forever without a care in the world and build a car disguised as a cottage on wheels to travel across France. Of course, that last bit might just be specific to the two resourceful teenagers in Michel Gondry’s disarming new film, Microbe & Gasoline… Daniel and Théo—or Microbe and Gasoline as they’ve been nicknamed by classmates for reasons of stature and motorcycle use—glom onto one another as fellow creative spirits and oases of respect at school. When their genteel routines of daily life no longer fit them, the only thing to do is hit the road for a sweet-natured adventure, in Gondry’s most deeply felt film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Resembling in outline a children’s buddy movie with a Franco-goofy title to boot, Microbe & Gasoline doesn’t shine as bright (or quite as dark) as Eternal Sunshine. But it does show Gondry reckoning with his characters’ blues and getting out of the house—those playhouses, real and meta, of so many past films and videos, open up here through some cross-country travels (albeit by shack-on-wheels). A precocious illustrator, weedy Daniel (Ange Dargent) is fleeing a cozy household where his mother alternates between doting and melancholic. His new schoolmate Théo (Théophile Baquet), who actually cuts a fairly dashing figure (maybe in the wrong decade) with his motorcycle jacket, escapes grumpy, struggling parents with zero patience for his tinkering genius.
Their wanderings are influenced by Daniel’s long-harbored feelings for a girl in his class who may or may not be on vacation somewhere on their route… But they’re also given a constant charge by the shivery thrill of risking getting caught and getting in over their heads, whether that means crossing paths with a street gang or infiltrating a children’s drawing contest at a village fair. It’s transparently a coming-of-age journey, but Gondry enjoys the frequent neat maturity of the boys’ outlook existing alongside their just being kids, ranginess alongside daintiness, all in the glow of supportive companionship.
Gondry’s sympathies have always been with oddballs at all ages, and even his adult characters resemble children learning everything from the ground up. His Mélièsian filmmaking suggests someone reverse-engineering the world around us and within us, but here it feels like he’s letting down his guard in a different way, no longer simply as the guileless video-born magician. Arriving in theaters this summer following a strangely low post-New York Film Festival profile—as if it were some unexpected standard French import—it’s a film that shows Gondry’s affinity with the playfulness and heart of early French New Wave. Though he’s not acting the innovator of those heady days half a century ago (or as Gondry himself was a decade or more ago), he’s created kindred artistic spirits with these two young actors that both relax and energize him.