Michel Gondry, the French filmmaker of big dreams, somber heartache and The Green Hornet, returns to his hometown of Versailles to tell a simple tale of two school-age boys who run away one summer. Microbe and Gasoline – the title is the boys’ nicknames – doesn’t have the surreal artistry of Gondry’s Mood Indigo or the flights of fancy of The Science of Sleep. But it has just enough of the quirky Gondry stamp while evoking some gentle moments of teen discovery. Gondry’s intentions (and young actors) are good, even as this likable film suffers from a pesky lack of cohesiveness.
If you’re the type that likes to rationalize a filmmaker’s moves, you could argue that the scattered tone is Gondry’s attempt to reflect his characters feeling untethered to the world around them. Daniel (Ange Dargent) is the runt of his classmates – “Microbe” – a slight, artistic boy who’s the polar opposite of his neat, organized brother. Théo is a mechanical whiz who’s ridiculed for his strange wardrobe and gasoline odor. Once these two outcasts find one another, they undertake one of the most familiar rites of passage for a young man: building a go-cart.
But Gondry’s characters, as expected, have extra ambition and inspiration, and end up creating a tiny house on wheels with its own motor (If HGTV doesn’t figure out a way to go behind the scenes with this one, they’re missing out.) The boys stock up on supplies and sneak out in the middle of the night to literally sputter their way across France. Their endgame is to arrive at the beloved camp Théo attended as a younger kid but, of course, Gondry and the universe have other plans.
It’s interesting to see Gondry create a teenage narrative that has this much sincerity and honesty. His ideas have always possessed a childlike quality of sorts, and his ability to write for the boys is one of the film’s greater strengths. The innocence recalls Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, the gentlest of all his movies and my personal favorite, and the dialogue conveys a camaraderie that’s natural between two loners. It’s a feeling close to that of We Are the Best!, about two preteen girls who start a punk band, rather than the forced buddy-buddy vibe of many Hollywood films, even very good ones (think Stand By Me and The Goonies).
After the boys have their unexpected adventures – a run-in with some Asian guys playing American football is particularly strange – Microbe and Gasoline loses a bit of its direction. Gondry’s script is a revision or two short of the boys’ return home having some real impact, and the opportunities are there. The devil-may-care approach to Daniel and Théo’s life on the road doesn’t work as well when the friends get back to the real world, and the last chapter of Microbe and Gasoline could use some extra tinkering and tightening.
Despite that shortcoming, the sweet spirit of the film makes it worthwhile, especially for Gondry fans who appreciate his career path and don’t expect the depth and fantasy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind every time he rolls camera. Just the excitement of traveling the countryside in a rickety old vehicle energizes the film – even if you do have to get out and push now and again.
Aka Microbe et Gasoil.