Leave it to a French-language stop-motion film to cut closer to the reality of the orphan experience than “Annie,” “Matilda” or any number of like-minded live-action melodramas have over the years — assuming, of course, you can get past the whimsical fact that its parentless wretch sports blue hair and a potato-shaped noggin. Adapted from the Gilles Paris YA novel by France’s most youth-savvy screenwriter, Celine Sciamma (“Tomboy,” “Girlhood”), Swiss director Claude Barras’ “My Life as a Zucchini” tells a simple story simply, drawing its power from point of view, as a troubled 9-year-old recounts his stint in a group home following the death of his alcoholic mother.
Named Icare at birth, but preferring to be called “Courgette” (French for “zucchini”) for sentimental reasons, the poor kid looks like he might be the long-lost brother of the similarly cobalt-coiffed Coraline, seen in Henry Selick’s far-darker stop-motion movie of the same name. Courgette isn’t nearly as expressive as Coraline was, his facial dynamics effectively limited to rolling his wide-set owl eyes and flexing his tiny Play-Doh mouth, though Sciamma’s script supplies whatever subtlety might be missing in Barras’ relatively rudimentary style in the genre, which is impressive enough for someone whose next-longest project ran less than eight minutes.
True to the children’s novel that inspired it, Sciamma’s screenplay takes its naive young protagonist’s view of the world, repeatedly introducing tough concepts in understated ways, as when father-figure cop Raymond delicately probes for details on Courgette’s family situation without exposing his deepest fear — namely that the boy inadvertently killed his mom trying to protect himself during one of her drunken rages. Now, remanded to the Fontaines group home, his only souvenir of her is an empty beer can.
The traumatized kid has even less to remember his long-gone dad, whom he imagines dressed in green underpants and blue superhero cape, surrounded by giant hens — although grown-ups will have no trouble perceiving his misunderstanding, since the rascal clearly abandoned his family to chase “chicks.”
Such is the life Courgette left behind, though he soon finds that the other kids at Fontaines had equally tough childhoods: Ahmed’s dad was arrested for robbing a convenience store, Alice’s father was taken away for inappropriate behavior, and newcomer Camille (on whom Courgette develops an instant crush) was witness to her parents’ murder-suicide.
This is not the stuff of which kids’ movies are typically made, and while “My Life as a Zucchini” falls into that zone of animation that’s mature enough for adults to appreciate, it deals frankly with the facts of life in a way that neither condescends to nor scars younger audiences. At the same time, the story tends to resolve obstacles a bit too easily, whether that means winning over orphanage bully Simon or finding a convenient way for Courgette and Camille to remain together after they’ve outgrown Fontaines.
Had the modest animated project not premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it will inevitably attract cineaste champions to tub-thump in territories that would otherwise have been completely out of reach (including the U.S.), the 66-minute feature might well have disappeared into the void of European TV. While it superficially resembles a certain strain of preschool programming, Barras’ stylized stop-motion sets it apart from the great glut of CG cartoons, taking its time where digital animation so often tends to be hyperkinetic.
From its gentle guitar soundtrack to the quietly observant way the film shares Courgette’s solitude — and, in time, participates in his newfound friendships — Barras’ movie demonstrates the same qualities expected of responsible parents: It bothers to notice how Courgette actually feels. He’s allowed to be melancholy, and at times, the movie feels as blue as the bags under his eyes, the emotional equivalent of spending the recess hour staring out a rain-streaked window.
Capturing and conveying that mood without lapsing into downbeat or depressive territory is harder than it sounds, but “My Life as a Zucchini” finds that balance. Though brightly colored and appealingly designed, its lightly damaged characters bear the crooked noses and never-explained facial scars of their well-worn childhoods — external evidence of all that they have been through at their young age. But they find levity in their days as well, whether speculating about where babies come from or holding an indoor snowball fight. And when all else fails, Barras cuts to an adorable squirrel or freshly hatched nest of songbirds to win back our sympathies. On one hand, the cartoon is never afraid to be cute, but more importantly, it’s committed to being real.