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MICROBE & GASOLINE (2016) review

August 2, 2016

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written by: Michel Gondry
produced by: Georges Bermann
directed by: Michel Gondry
rating: R (for some sex-related material involving young teens)
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: July 8, 2016 (limited) and July 29, 2016-August 4, 2016 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL) 

 

Writer/director Micel Gondry is known for his whimsical, daydream-like style, even dabbling in fantasy at times, but his new film, “Microbe & Gasoline”, feels like a cathartic personal memory that he felt compelled to exorcise. I was already sold on his style, but with this film he tends to dial it down a bit and offer a picture that just about anyone can relate to – that is, if they can recall their awkward adolescent years. His fascination with kaleidoscope imagery takes a back seat to a welcome focus on characterization and the story here actually benefits from such tasteful observant restraint. That’s not to say his trademark oddity isn’t intact here, it just happens to be peeking around a few corners.

Gondry’s story, which is loosely based on his own boyhood, revolves around two French outcast teens near Versailles who strike up a friendship at school. Daniel (Ange Dargent) has an artistic side and struggles to find himself under the smothering household overseen by his single mother, Marie (Audrey Tautou), as he navigates a typical journey of self-examination. He attempts to win the attention of an attractive classmate, Laura (Diane Besnier), the object of affection (fantasies), yet is completely intimidated due to his size (that’s why he’s nicknamed “Microbe”)  and reputation for geek interests, which leads to bully subjection. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid in school,  affable and cool in his own mind with a tendency for mechanical repair skills (hence the nickname “Gasoline”). These two hit if off, primarily because Daniel is the only one curious enough about Theo to approach him and they begin to bond and confide, forming a friendship that takes them well past the end of the school year.

 

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Escaping the dejection, restrictions and overall under appreciation by those around them, the two decide to whet their longing for adventure by building their own vehicle. Using a lawnmower engine and junk scrap for the rest of the body, the boys wind up creating a functional clubhouse on wheels.  To celebrate their freedom and individuality, Daniel and Theo head drive out to the countryside to experience the world on their own terms – free or ridicule, rules and restrictions.

It all sounds like a quirky jaunt (sorry to use the Q-word, but Gondry does dial it down here), reminiscent of something you might see from Spike Jonze or Noah Baumbach or maybe even the Dardanne brothers,  but “Microbe and Gasoline” is uniquely grounded and propelled by the film’s two fine performances from Dargent and Baquet. Gondry really doesn’t have to do much else beyond following these unassuming boys. The two actors deliver a palpable commitment which feels so pure that I often wondered how much Gondry filmed them going off-script, because the line delivery and responses feel so natural and the camerawork by Laurent Brunet seems intent on simply following the pair in a documentary style, allowing a carefree tone that matches the ambling path these two are on.

As the boy who is often mistaken for a girl, Dargent nails the open-eyed, restless nature of Daniel. Although socially deflated, he is confident in his own abilities as we see him drawing pictures of his brother’s punk band and, of course, Laura, but he isn’t too keen on sharing them with just anyone.  Like so many boys treading into the waves of puberty, Daniel toys with masturbation as he deals with both romantic longings and hormonal urges and he happens to have a mother who is more than willing to talk with him about such explorations in detail, much to his embarrassment. Gondry provides Dargent with characterization that meets somewhere halfway between sullen and precocious, offering distinctive quirks such as giving the boy a sleeplessness coping mechanism of singing himself to sleep. It reminded me how we all had such quirks growing up and sometimes we still do as we age.

 

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Baquet’s Theo is written as that new kid who exudes confidence and stands out. He’s not cocky or may be weird to sum, but to the right kid – in this case, Daniel, he’s a refreshing change from the other kids who so easily fit into stereotypes. Gondry gives this character some of the best lines of the film as he shares his “old soul” world view with such gems as, “Alcohol is the death of dignity” and “Friendship is the death of love”.  Theo has a solid friendship with Daniel, he tells him, “We are totally underestimated” and “kid’s aren’t responsible for their parent’s happiness”. These are the kinds of lines that kids pick from either reading or overhearing adults, but it’s also something they glean from their own life experiences as well and in “Microbe & Gasoline” they are lines that aren’t delivered for laughs, but simply to solidify the who a character is and what kind of friendship is cultivating. I loved Theo’s odd intro, as the rejected kid (although he could care less)  with the tricked-out bicycle with a sound system and soundboard, unintentionally introducing his inventiveness to a new friend that shares his passion for creativity.

The heart of the film is the friendship between the two boys, obviously (hence, the title) and while there are familiar coming-of-age elements present, Gondry offers something more relatable to viewers. He’s tapping into that childhood friendship, possibly that one friend (maybe you had more than one) who always had your back and would lift you up and the one you’re most likely to butt heads with over stupid stuff. Daniel and Theo develop such a friendship and it reminded me of the kinds of friendships I would turn to when things got crazy at home. Daniel has his own domestic drama – not the typical parental abuse, but a mother who is exploring her own wellness development by altering her diet or dragging Daniel to self-help seminars. Theo’s parents are a little more typical in such a story – the kind that don’t appreciate him as much as they should – but again the expected abuse is thankfully absent and melodrama free.

The standout moment in “Microbe & Gasoline” that epitomizes Theo’s support to Daniel is when he shows up as the lone viewer at Daniel’s local art gallery opening. Immediately noticing he’s the only one there, Theo pantomimes his way through a crowded space in order to get to Daniel. What could’ve played as mere quirk genuinely comes across as a funny and heartwarming scene of encouragement.

The film waits until the second half to see the boys take off on their big trip, after we’ve witnessed the established coming-of-age angst. The constructed vehicle is clearly a way to establish their freedom from all that holds them back as well as a vehicle for their growing masculinity. During the journey is where we get some great conversations (think “Is Goofy a dog?” from “Stand By Me”) that often allow enlightening and philosophical debates to surface. What makes their trip most interesting though is who they encounter and where they go as they make their way to rural Aubrac, the destination of a summer camp from their youth that was staffed with curvaceous women.  The boys get on the wrong side of a strange Korean motorcycle gang slightly older than them and Daniel receives an unfinished haircut after he mistakenly wanders into a massage parlor. Their unplugged journey (Gondry cleverly writes out Daniel’s iPhone early on) comes to head when the boys get on each other’s nerves after it’s revealed that Daniel has secretly rerouted their trip to the lakeside cabin owned by the family of his crush from school, with the hopes of them hooking up.

I don’t know how he taps into it, but Gondry has such a gifted eye and ear for the juvenile experience and he does so in such a seemingly effortless manner. It’s a specialty subgenre he’s drawn to. His 2012 film “The We and the I” followed a day in the life of a group of New York City teenagers in the same authentic way and Gondry also has two upcoming films lined up that also revolve around teenagers as well. Hollywood may have dejected him after “The Green Hornet” failed to launch a brand and his last whimsical fantasy “Mood Indigo” only received critical success as it worked the festival circuit, but it’s nice to see the writer/director continue to explore an area of storytelling that speaks to his own creative yearning – much like the two boys in this film.

If I were to compare this story between a hopeless romantic and a grease monkey to any recent movies, I guess one could find some “Sing Street” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” here, just in how authentic these adolescent depictions feel. The coolness and precocious nature of those films is present, yet Gondry simply offers the need for connection during the uncertain teen years throughout, making it his most relatable film yet.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

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