My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras, 2016) Switzerland | France
Reviewed by Gustav Arndal. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“Sometimes we cry because we are happy.”
This is the lesson the main characters of this sweet little story learn, and the journey to get there is at once beautiful and bittersweet.
Ma Vie de Courgette tells the story of Icare, a 9-year-old boy whose alcoholic, single mother dies in an accident. Icare, who goes by the nickname Courgette, literally meaning “Zucchini,” is then sent to an orphanage, where he meets kids his age in similar situations.
With such a dark subject matter, the movie is surprisingly heartwarming and consistently funny, and it achieves this by making everything about the kids – not their situations. Every element goes into giving us a child’s perspective. The wonderfully crafted stop-motion clay figures gives the movie an aesthetic somewhere between a dollhouse and a child’s drawing, with minimalist backgrounds, a droopy art style, and big, expressive faces.
What’s most surprising is how maturely it deals with harsh issues like abuse, neglect, and even death. These kids have had terrible experiences, but they still maintain an adorable innocence that makes them sensitive towards others around them. There’s explicit neglect and drug use, and it’s even implied that a girl was molested, but it’s explained in a matter-of-fact yet delicate way and the story moves on. Because this story isn’t just about orphans. It’s about childhood.
This movie has some of the best written child characters I’ve ever come across. They’re not defined by their quirks nor by their terrible pasts, but by their friendships, struggles and growth. At the start of the movie, Courgette gets picked on by a loud mouthed kid, and just when you think you met the “child bully villain,” he turns out to be a good friend and kind person. He doesn’t call people names because he’s evil. It’s because he’s a kid, and that’s what kids do.
Kids understand way more than we give them credit for, and the adults in this story who take care of the orphans know and understand this. They treat these vulnerable children with respect and kindness that you know they deserve, and help them find happiness in their all too darkened lives.
It’s a journey from sadness to melancholy to belonging and finally to true happiness, and at the end you leave elated and with a new respect for child workers and foster homes. It’s almost unbearably sweet, this movie, and the world would be a little better if everyone saw it at least once.