My Life as a Zucchini may be a relatively traditional children’s film strictly in the formal terms of its stop motion animation — but in content, it’s far from your standard kids’ fare. After all, this is a film in which the inciting incident revolves around our young protagonist accidentally killing his abusive, alcoholic mother within the first five minutes. While American animation — notably in the hands of studios like Pixar — has been defined in recent years by a tendency to pander to parents through the incorporation of mature themes and humor, Zucchini take an inverse approach by addressing particularly weighty issues on an emotional and psychological level appropriate to its target audience. I can’t think of many narrative balancing acts more delicate than trying to convey to children very adult concepts like abuse, death, loss and abandonment without overwhelming fragile young psyches, and yet Zucchini pulls it off with almost miraculous aplomb.
A Franco-Swiss co-production helmed by short-film director Claude Barras and adapted by screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood), from the YA novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, Zucchini refuses to pull its punches. Nine-year-old Icare — nicknamed Courgette (“Zucchini” in French) by his mother before her death — finds himself relegated to an orphanage full of similarly traumatized children. Our protagonist’s new compatriots include kids whose parents have been deported or arrested, at least one victim of molestation and a love interest who witnessed her own parents’ murder-suicide. It’s bleak material to say the least, but Barras and Sciamma, like their characters, never abandon hope entirely.
As young Courgette adapts to his new circumstances, he finds a support structure in the form of policeman and paternal proxy Raymond, some kindly and attentive caretakers and a growing sense of familial affinity for the other kids at the orphanage. These relationships feel organically developed and emotionally real, grounding the characters in a naturalistic sense of childhood that normalizes the suffering their respective backstories entail. Barras and Sciamma deftly avoid maudlin self-pity and compensatory saccharinity, allowing their subjects to develop without the slightest hint of condescension toward the audience. As filmmakers, they’ve performed the laudable feat of treating children like sentient entities, complete with their own perspectives, as opposed to depicting them as malformed adults — it really shouldn’t be a novel concept, but I can’t remember having seen it carried out so successfully.
Zucchini is densely layered with symbolism and narrative nuance. Courgette’s eponymous sobriquet is a near-homophone with “courage,” a bit of wordplay likely to be lost in translation for some monolingual American audiences — while his birth name references the myth of Icarus, a motif reinforced by one of the two mementos of his prior life. This object is a kite featuring a superhero that resembles Zucchini’s conception of his long-absent, philandering father, placing our protagonist’s character arc in a role-reversed association with the Greek myth. His souvenir of his mother, an empty beer can, is a little less complicated to symbolically unpack. Barras’ painstaking analog stop-motion claymation is beautiful in its lack of polish, providing a perfect aesthetic for the narrative’s rough edges in a way that slick computer animation would have undermined.
While Zucchini deals with profoundly dark subject matter, it is replete with heartwarming scenes of triumph over almost unfathomable adversity; a testament to the resiliency of youth. The story’s approach to what could be defined in Jungian psycho-analytic terms as the Negative Anima complex is respectful and considerate in a way that few children’s films bother to be, resulting in a film that’s as useful as it is moving and entertaining. It’s a valuable resource for teaching children how to confront a world that too often seems cruel and indifferent — a lesson that most adults could stand to revisit as well. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and suggestive material. French with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.