Director: Claude Barras
Céline Sciamma certainly has a way of tapping into childhood. Her own directorial efforts Water Lillies, Tomboy and Girlhood have focused keenly on youth and adolescence, and have earned just praise for their observations. She approaches our fledgling and formative years with a level of credibility that the young aren’t often afforded in the movies, in the process making her work feel honest and intuitive. She’s responsible for adapting Gilles Paris’ novel here, brought into being in loving stop motion animation by Claude Barras. It’s a modestly sized film, clocking in at a tidy 70 minutes, but it’s time wisely spent.
My Life As A Courgette follows a few precious months in the life of young Icar (though he prefers his greener nickname). We meet him a dark time, living in an attic room while his drunken mother disappears days in front of the TV with her beers. An accident leaves ‘Courgette’ alone. A caring mustachioed police office delivers him to a small foster home where he cautiously meets a collective of quirky orphans. It’s something of a grim opening, and Barras washes out the colour palette accordingly. Courgette begins as bit of a grim prospect. Yet the narrative through line gradually allows more light into the picture. Though there is mild drama along the way, the film plays out like a storm clearing. It’s simplicity itself, but this allows richness to reveal itself in the details.
Courgette’s first interactions with the other children are inauspicious, particularly flame-haired Simon, who asserts a dominant role in the group and bullies our sallow little hero. Courgette stands up for himself and earns respect, respect which develops into friendship. Finding his stride with Simon becomes key to clicking with the remainder of the kids, who are economically sketched in to varying degrees. Our sympathies are evoked with underplayed revelations. Take Alice, for example, a rattled girl with a blonde fringe that conceals one eye like a drawn curtain. Her history is softly shaded. Adult viewers will understand the horrible ramifications of the minimal exposition; young viewers will be protected from the uglier unspoken connotations.
Things change for Courgette with the arrival of Camille, another unwanted child from a scarred background. Courgette loves her from the off, and the back-end of the movie concerns itself with Camille’s well-being, as a loveless aunt attempts to obtain custody of her. With the help of her friends – and that caring policeman – Camille finds the opportunity to assert control over her own future.
In the main this is a polite and uplifting little ode to friendship and the idea that family isn’t necessarily defined by blood relation but by those that share themselves with us and vice versa. Courgette is a particularly shy and passive central character, introverted and pained by his traumas. The heart he wears on his sleeve is his own strength, encouraging the empathy of others. Simon – who could so easily have been reduced to a one-note bully – is afforded equal understanding. Sciamma’s script and Barras’ realisation of the material mean we understand and recognise him. He’s a truthful person, as all of these creations are. My Life As A Courgette understands the nuances of childhood psychology.
It also shines a spotlight on the sad fact that not all children in our society are wanted, that some have to learn too young that life doesn’t come with a set of guarantees. While enjoying a snowy play day, the group of kids have a self-aware moment as they realise a mother and child are regarding them. They are framed by the camera like an exhibit. Elsewhere, Courgette impresses with some of its smallest details. In a late scene, Camille is presented with a place to call her own. In an instinctive gesture her hand reaches for her benefactor. In live action it’d be taken for granted, in animation it’s a deliberate effort on the part of the creators; an insightful element of minutiae that is indicative of the attention to detail in the film at large. Put simply, there’s care here.
Courgette is a little heart-warmer, then. The characters with their big heads – like more expressive Funko Pop vinyl figures – are cute as hell. The sets are detailed. The clothes beautifully made. The animation is fluid. On a technical level, this proves Barras one of the masters in his field. And for the second year in a row it looks like one of the very finest animated releases is set to be a stop motion effort. The film is slight, but so is Totoro. Similarly, this feels like a future family favourite in the making. It may be small, but as Sciamma has repeatedly shown, there’s no reason to underestimate modest efforts, especially when they give so much.