Though it’s more frequently used to realize otherwise impossible visual delights, animation can be an ingenious way to handle a story that might otherwise be too tragic onscreen. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is a timeless example; it’s hard to imagine the story of two young children slowly starving in the war-torn Japanese countryside told through the human bodies of young actors. My Life As a Zucchini, a Swiss-French adaptation of a novel by Gilles Paris, similarly portrays children at the receiving end of horrific tragedy, here rendered in colorfully forlorn stop-motion and clay animation. In his feature debut, director Claude Barras uses the medium to bridge the story’s darker elements, the better to illuminate its smaller moments of joy and tenderness.
The story, which will blindside anyone expecting a French VeggieTales, is about Icare, nicknamed Zucchini by his alcoholic mother. When she dies, Zucchini is left parentless. He’s taken under the wing of a kindhearted policeman named Raymond (voiced by Nick Offerman in the English dub; the film will also be released subtitled in its original French at select theaters) who sends him to live in an orphanage outside of town. There he meets a band of similarly misfit toys, all with backstories as matter-of-factly tragic as Zucchini’s. (One kid’s mother was deported, one was neglected by his addict parents, one witnessed the murder of her mother by her father.) The rest plays out as a semi-episodic coming-of-age narrative — Zucchini falls in love, makes enemies who turn into friends, and finds a second family among his fellow orphans and the teachers and supervisors who look after them.
The Oscar-nominated Zucchini is barely over an hour long, but it’s told with undiluted emotional drama that’s both subtle and economic. Part of this is due to the animation direction of Kim Keukeleire, who worked on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and will be a lead animator on the director’s upcoming Isle of Dogs. Keukeleire imbues the people in Zucchini’s orbit with a world weariness that belies their whimsically big-headed figures. With their dark-circled eyes and red noses, the design of the children suggests a lifetime of tears, even when they’re goofing off after lights out or having a dance party during a field trip. Barras often lets the camera drift away for scenes of abuse and other hard-to-watch themes, but otherwise the story is told as straightforwardly as a child would experience it.
Paris’s book has yet to be translated into English, but it’s commonly described as being written in Zucchini’s naïve voice, hinging frequently on misunderstandings of adult discussions. (In the book and the film, Zucchini believes his absent father has run off with a hen, after hearing his mother rail about some “chick.”) Thankfully, the script by Girlhood director Céline Sciamma is not so literal or cute. The children talk about each other’s trials with very little sentimentality or euphemism; they’re voraciously curious about sex, especially sex between two loving, consenting adults. Sciamma’s script, which has been translated to English with typical elegance by North American distribution house GKIDS, is clear-eyed about all of this.
Because it’s told so intimately from Zucchini’s perspective, the movie’s also not equipped to be an indictment of child welfare services, foster systems, or any of the other flawed bureaucracies that its young protagonists depend on. Issues of immigration and racial profiling exist in its margins — several of the children have a deep distrust of police, which makes Raymond a begrudging target for pranks every time he drops by the orphanage to visit Zucchini. But these notes end up functioning like a more socially aware version of the pop-culture references in Pixar films — something for the adults in the room to chew on alongside the heartaches.
Perhaps those adults will also get something out of the voices of Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, and Will Forte on the dub soundtrack — all of whom (Offerman particularly) do fine, sensitive work but take a backseat to the unpolished, lively chorus of child actors. Their names, as is often the case with these things, primarily serve as endorsements, and in this case it’s an earned one. My Life As a Zucchini is a deft work of empathy, and unlike a few of its fellow animation Oscar contenders, it works on a more intimate scale, without a big message or master thesis to carry it to its conclusion. All it has to do is put us in different shoes for an hour — even if those shoes belong to a zucchini.