Mark Reviews Movies

My Life as a Zucchini


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Claude Barras

Cast: The voices of Erick Abbate, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Romy Beckman, Ellen Page, Will Forte, Susanne Blakeslee, Olivia Bucknor, Barry Mitchell, Finn Robbins, Clara Young, Amy Sedaris

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and suggestive material)

Running Time: 1:06

Release Date: 2/24/17 (limited); 3/10/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 9, 2017

The intrinsic cuteness of the style and surface—not to mention the title—of My Life as a Zucchini belies the film's broken, despondent heart. The characters are clay figurines with exaggerated features (The main character's head is absurdly disproportionate to his body, and in one part, there's a squirrel that is so comically cartoonish that one expects it to break into song) and movements that are almost rubbery. At face value, this looks like any given piece of child-oriented, stop-motion animation. Then the main character, terrified of receiving a beating, accidentally kills his intoxicated mother by slamming the attic door on her head. At that point, we know this film isn't at all what it looks like.

It begins with the childlike escapism that we might expect from a character such as this 9-year-old boy. He is putting the finishing touches on a drawing on his kite—a superhero on the front and a chicken on the back. We soon learn that it's a drawing of what he imagines his absent father to be like. The chicken is because his now-deceased mother often told the boy that dear, old dad "really liked chicks."

The kite soars in the air from the attic window, and as if on cue, a storm arrives, forcing young Zucchini (voice of Erick Abbate) to go downstairs to the reality of his home life—his mother cracking open another can of beer, yelling at a television soap opera about how love is a lie, and belching in disgust. The kid collects his mom's empty beer cans for his artistic crafting projects, and it's a pyramid of the cans collapsing that sends his mother into a fit of rage, resulting in her accidental death.

This is a film about orphans—by natural causes, from the choice of a parent or parents, on account of legal matters, or some combination of any of these. It's set in a home, where the kids living there have fairly standard routines: meals, classes, playtime, a set bedtime, and a chart on which they can report their mood based on drawings of the weather—a sun for happy and a rain cloud for sad. There's a middle range for emotions, too, although it's notable that the kids rarely, if ever, use it. One girl, who refuses to say why she's at the home, notes that her mood is set one weather pattern below sunny, and seeing that none of the other kids' slider is in that range, she moves it to the sun. It's clear she's not there, but what else is she to do?

The film, based on a novel by Gilles Paris (and effectively dubbed into English, from its original French, for the U.S. release), is filled with little, unspoken details such as this one. They're unspoken because the girl, named Camille (voice of Ness Krell), isn't the only child resident at the home to keep the details of her past quiet. Simon (voice of Romy Beckman), the bully-like leader of the kids (until the brave Camille arrives), makes it his business to find out why the kids are there.

One boy's father was sent to prison for robbing a shoe store, so that he could get his son some sneakers. One girl's mother was deported, and another's father is only described as a "creep." He's in prison now, too, although the girl still has nightmares because of what he did. Simon's own parents are drug addicts, and there's a telling scar—barely visible but definitely there—where the boy's hair parts in the front. He never speaks of how he got that scar.

The same can be said of Camille, whose tragic past is only uncovered by Zucchini and Simon sneaking into the administrator's office one night, and our protagonist, who clings to his odd nickname because the mother who neglected him gave it to him. We never learn if the moniker's origin came from love or as an insult, and it really doesn't matter. The boy holds on to it, because it's his mother's—just as he keeps a couple of empty beer cans with him.

There's not much of a plot here, although it would be unnecessary anyway. The kids go through their routines, find the social order of the home upended a bit by Camille's arrival, take a trip to a ski lodge, and wait for parents—either who will never come or whom the kids would rather stay away (One girl runs out of the home any time she hears a car pull up, expecting it's her mother, but when the mother does arrive one day, she runs back inside in fear).

Zucchini regularly writes letters to and occasionally receives visits from Raymond (voice of Nick Offerman), the kindly police officer who took the boy's statement after his mother's death and brought him to the home. He's a man who knows that children sometimes choose to leave a parent. Like the staff at the residence, he offers a small glimmer of hope for these kids that, while they have become convinced that no one will show them the love that parents are supposed to have, at least there are people capable of such love in the world.

It's a small but vital consolation, but what keeps these characters going is the sense of community that has arisen and continues to solidify among these children. That's the heart of My Life as a Zucchini.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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