The animation style may be a bit of a tipoff: My Life as a Zucchini is not going to be an easy film. The haunting claymation features people with sallow faces and shadowed eyes on oversized heads, tragedy and pain made bloatedly manifest on their bodies. And these people are mostly children: orphans abandoned by life, which has turned them either bullying or neurotic or withdrawn or just plain sad. Some parents may feel that this is not a film suitable for children, but I disagree: kids’ sympathy (and that of adults, too) will be powerfully engaged by this instantly captivating tale of the unexpected turns life can take, the new friendships that can bring, and the deeper understanding of our fellow humans that misfortune can grant us… and all at a level that gradeschoolers should have no trouble appreciating.
My Life as a Zucchini might, however, make some parents uncomfortable with the questions their newly empathetic offspring may well raise. Why is nine-year-old Zucchini’s (the voice of Erick Abbate) mother (the voice of Susanne Blakeslee: Crimson Peak) so mean to him? Why does she drink so much beer? Where is Zucchini’s dad, and why does he have to go to a foster home when his mother dies so suddenly? The manner of the boy’s mother’s death will also certainly horrify some children, and adults will surely appreciate how the event haunts Zucchini in more than the presumed way, when a child loses a parent. Nothing graphic is depicted anywhere in the movie, but the ideas it confronts revolve around harsh realities that too many real children have to figure out how to cope with.
Thankfully, at least, the orphanage where Zucchini ends up is not one of those terrible places we’re used to seeing in movies such as Annie and Oliver! It’s a nice place, run by thoughtful, caring people… but it’s not home. Still, Zucchini — we never learn why he has such an unusual nickname — is building a new life for himself, winning over bully Simon (the voice of Romy Beckman: Ernest & Celestine); making a special pal in the next newcomer after him to the orphanage, Camille (the voice of Ness Krell: Fading Gigolo); and finding a new adult mentor in kindly police officer Raymond (the voice of Nick Offerman: The Founder, Ice Age: Collision Course), who met Zucchini while handling his mother’s death. All of these children are weighted down by their betrayal by the world: in one particularly poignant moment, out together in a public place, the orphans watch with longing a mother tenderly interact with her young son, and speculate about them. Yet through the sadness and unusualness of Zucchini’s situation comes much that will be familiar and reassuring to even happy kids with solid family lives: everyone has trouble in new places and with making new friends, for instance; and there are more kind adults in the world than nasty ones.
Based on a book by Gilles Paris (which does not appear to have been translated into English), and with a screenplay by Céline Sciamma — who wrote and directed the amazing Girlhood, also full of keen insights into young minds — this is the first feature from Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras. (Though be warned: at 67 minutes, this only just qualifies as a feature.) Its remarkable and palpable warmth and humanity surely contributed to its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this year, and indeed, it is a wonderful companion to Moonlight, the Best Picture winner, in how it makes a very specific human story feel universal. Simply a lovely film, with some of the most striking animation I’ve ever seen. I won’t stop thinking about this one soon.
I saw the English-dubbed version of the film, which also includes voice work by Will Forte, Ellen Page, and Amy Sedaris. A subtitled French-language version is also available in North American cinemas.
My Life as a Zucchini will expand across North America through March and April. See the film’s official site for dates and cities.