If Michel Gondry’s movies were books, they’d come with hand-stitched covers, fold-out pop-ups and a progression of flipbook-style doodles in the bottom corner of every page. No other working director brings quite the same lo-fi, do-it-yourself quality to his filmmaking, and yet, Gondry’s inventive charm has often proven to be his own worst enemy, overtaking and cutesifying stories that might play better without all the confetti and curlicues. With “Microbe and Gasoline,” the French writer-director has wisely restrained his usual flourishes, allowing the two teenage leads in his relatively calm summer-vacation coming-of-age comedy to assume centerstage, imbuing them with creative agency rather than forcing them to compete with the film’s own style. What emerges is an admittedly small but wonderfully sincere portrait of two adolescent outsiders determined to pave their own way in the world.
Quietly released in France after being slighted by the festival circuit, this modest project faces a tough future, especially in the wake of Gondry’s high-profile flop “Mood Indigo,” which he complicated by re-releasing in a similarly unsuccessful director’s cut. Here, Gondry pulls back and gets personal — or at least, more intimate — as he has several times before in his career, with his family portrait “The Thorn in the Heart” and his Bronx bus ride “The We and the I.” In “Microbe and Gasoline,” he focuses on the bond between two teens whose Holden Caulfield-like disdain for the phonies around them leads them on a wildly unconventional road trip.
Puny for his age — hence his unfortunate “Microbe” nickname — Daniel (Ange Dargent) might have been modeled after a young Gondry: Splitting his room with his neat-freak brother, the androgynous-looking kid surrounds himself with clutter and can’t keep himself from doodling, stashing the dirtier drawings under his mattress. In class, Microbe is obviously the runt, humiliated when the teacher tells the relatively cool-looking new student, Theo (Theophile Baquet), to “go sit next to that little girl.”
Unlike Microbe, who does his best to seem invisible, Theo — a grease-smeared tinkerer promptly rechristened “Gasoline” — is one of those naturally cocky high-school types, like Stiffler or the Fonz, who sports a leather jacket, lets his long hair run wild and rides around on a bike jerry-rigged with a sound effects box and amplifiers. He might not be conventionally cool, but the fact that he doesn’t care what others think more than compensates.
Gasoline is just the sort of hero Microbe needs to break free from the dual tyrannies of public school and trouble at home (in an against-type cameo, Audrey Tautou plays his bespectacled mother, smothering by nature, but recently distracted by an imminent divorce). Together, the two boys are strong enough to stand up not only to the school bullies, but the world at large, resolving to build a custom vehicle they can use to run away from home.
The resulting house-car — basically, a hand-constructed caravan that looks like a wooden cottage on wheels — is pure Gondry, but scrappy enough for audiences to believe that two kids built it. The mobile home might not be street-legal, but can conveniently camouflage itself as a shack in case they should run into any cops along the way, making for one of the film’s most amusing scenes, when a group of police stop to take selfies in front of the makeshift building while the boys hide out inside.
In its unhurried first half, “Microbe and Gasoline” seems content to serve as mere character portrait, distinguishing itself from the thousands of other teen pics by acknowledging the fundamental awkwardness of adolescence. Gondry sketches an honest impression of youth where Microbe’s crush, a classmate named Laura (Diane Besnier), isn’t some jailbait bombshell, but rather an equally uncomfortable young woman with braces, and where a sincere act of friendship at a particularly vulnerable moment (such as the supportive way Gasoline handles Microbe’s deserted gallery opening) can cement one’s self-confidence for life. Such true-to-life details marry surprisingly well with Gondry’s irrepressible surrealistic streak, inviting big smiles as this winning duo take their dynamic on the road from the outskirts of Paris to the Burgundy woods.
A bit indulgent in its pacing, but only by today’s breakneck standards, the film feels slightly out-of-time, blending retro and nostalgic details with elements clearly intended to be contemporary (such as an iPhone that meets its unfortunate end at the kids’ first bathroom break). The film feels downright patient for its genre: One can easily imagine Gondry looking at Louis Malle’s “Zazie in the Metro” and trying to amplify its playful sensibility, but instead, he downshifts into more classic ’70s and ’80s kid-pic territory, a la “Stand by Me.” That we don’t lose interest is a testament to the chemistry between its two young leads. They work great together, while Baquet, who plays Gasoline, displays the natural charisma of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud and could go far.