Even the most mature films of uber-eclectic auteur Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have reveled in adolescent fantasy, so it comes as no surprise that he’s decided to tackle the genre head on with his latest concoction: Microbe & Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil), a freewheeling surreal road movie about two teen geeks driving a homemade caravan across the French countryside.
Bathed in pre-CG gimmickry and good vibes, this endearing coming-of-age tale may be one of the pop auteur’s most playful works of late, though that won’t necessarily translate to big box office numbers. The movie is more of a low-fi, somewhat patience-testing throwback to ‘80’s kids’ flicks like Stand by Me and The Goonies, which should please 30-something nostalgia seekers rather than teens looking for a summer thrill ride.
Indeed, that the heart of the story involves a rickety mobile home traveling no faster than 10mph is a very Gondry-esque cure to the blockbuster blues – his own handcrafted Fast & Furious, with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker replaced by a pair of 14-year-old losers who share a love of pranks, gadgets and rebellious antics. Played by newcomers Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet, these enfants terribles win you over from the get-go, and even if their journey can grow exhausting in the way Gondry’s films often do, they’re a pleasure to hang with.
As junior high students in a quiet Paris suburb, Microbe (Dargent) and Gasoline (Baquet) seem made for each other – down to the fact that neither of them chose their nickname: Microbe is called that because he’s a frail nerd often mistaken for a girl; Gasoline is a snarky gearhead who knows his way around an engine but has no real friends. When the latter transfers to Microbe’s class, the two become fast pals, teaming up to build their own ramshackle automobile – which, in a very Gondry-style twist, is fitted with a wooden French cottage on top. (“In case the cops catch us,” explains Gasoline).
Soon enough, school’s out and the pair hits the road in search of Microbe’s erstwhile love interest (Diane Besnier) and Gasoline’s favorite camping spot, leaving their parents far behind. Along the way, they encounter several eccentric characters – including a wacky dentist and a squad of angry Asian football players – who make their trip a living hell, while forging a bond that will suffer the usual teenage growing pains.
Inspired by the director’s own childhood in Versailles, the film is clearly a labor of love from start to finish, with the avidly creative Microbe serving as Gondry’s worthy alter-ego. There’s a carefree spirit about everything that happens, including all the talk about girls and masturbation, that makes the story as breezy as the summer air, even if things inevitably turn sour when the two friends lose their innocence in the last act.
Employing his usual DIY directorial methods, Gondry seems to be having a blast with all the jerry-rigged objects and antiques provided by production designer Stephane Rozenbaum, who also worked on Mood Indigo and The Science of Sleep. And although it’s set in the present, the movie definitely has its head in a pre-Internet era – a sentiment Gondry openly acknowledges when he has Microbe accidentally defecate on his brother’s iPhone.
As in other recent efforts, this one suffers from a lack of precision in the storytelling, and the contribution of a writer like Charlie Kaufman is sorely missed. But that doesn’t stop Microbe & Gasoline from dishing out sufficient Gallic charms, in a film that feels like it was co-directed by Francois Truffaut and Terry Gilliam during his Monty Python days, offering up some clever visual gags amid lots of adolescent angst.
Alongside the well-cast gamins, Audrey Tautou of Mood Indigo returns here to play Microbe’s depressive old-maid mother, sporting librarian glasses and a series of awful white dress shirts. Like everyone else in Gondry’s nostalgic, candy-coated road trip, her character belongs to another era, but she’s ultimately none the worse for wear.
Production companies: Partizan Films, StudioCanal
Cast: Ange Dargent, Theophile Baquet, Diane Besnier, Audrey Tautou
Director, screenwriter: Michel Gondry
Producer: Geroges Bermann
Director of photography: Laurent Brunet
Production designer: Stephane Rozenbaum
Costume designer: Florence Fontaine
Editor: Elise Fievet
Composer: Jean-Claude Vannier
Casting directors: Leila Fournier, Sarah Tepper
International sales: StudioCanal
No rating, 103 minutes