Michel Gondry’s latest, Microbe & Gasoline, is the director’s most straightforward picture yet — at least within a visual context. Stylistically, Microbe & Gasoline is a much more subdued film than his last, the aggressively Gondrian Mood Indigo (2013), a film that allowed the director to thankfully wallow in his more surrealistic tendencies. This time around, he’s opted for a different approach, but one that’s still singularly a Gondry film, filled with bouts of whimsy and a wonderfully innate humanity.
On the surface, Microbe & Gasoline is a coming-of-age tale about two teenage friends: Daniel (Ange Dargent), aka “Microbe” because of his slight size, and Theo (Theophile Baquet), aka “Gasoline” due to his tendency to smell like gasoline as a result of his blue collar upbringing. Neither is happy with their home situation. Daniel has an overbearing, depressed (though supportive) mother (Audrey Tautou), and Theo’s parents are unaffectionate. So they do what any young men would do (at least ones in a Gondry film), which is build a mobile home out of salvaged parts, power it with a lawnmower engine and hit the road.
Gondry’s film’s have always been outfitted with the fantastical by way of a certain homemade charm, but Microbe & Gasoline shies away from this. Beyond the duo’s piecemeal mobile home and Theo’s bicycle (both glued together with knickknacks and junk), there’s not much visually that feels like Gondry. Instead, there’s an intensified focus on the film’s main characters. Daniel and Theo resemble, in many ways, the odd-couple friendship between Mos Def and Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind (2008), but with their confused love for each other placed inside of childhood. In this sense, Gondry’s worldview is stronger when viewed through the eyes of teenagers (something he got right in 2012’s much-maligned The We and the I), since so much of his cinematic concerns involve trying to find one’s footing in the world — especially when the world you see is so different than everybody else’s. What fits that description better than growing up?
What works best in Microbe & Gasoline is that ability of Gondry (who also wrote the film) to capture the confusion of getting older. Whether it be our tendency to be jealous of our best friends or our struggles with understanding love and sexuality, Gondry tackles them deftly while never copping out for a full-on feel-good ending. Helping the film are Dargent and Baquet, who play their roles with a certain joy, even when wrapped up in their own bewilderment. Gondry’s cinematic playfulness is still here, it just comes via his characters. It’s unfortunate that finding a movie that wrangles with emotion but lacks emotional heaviness feels like such a rare thing. Microbe & Gasoline feels like the rarest of things, a film with an amount of wonder but with something on its mind nonetheless. Rated R for some sex-related material involving young teens.