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Microbe and Gasoline (2016)

Drama Rated R

Writer-director Michel Gondry significantly dials back on the manic whimsy for Microbe and Gasoline, a sweet story about two misfit teens who find solace, then self-confidence, in each other. Even as someone with a high tolerance for the filmmaker’s hand-crafted hijinks, this was a refreshing diversion, a nice break from an aesthetic that had begun to feel like a hurdle as much as an asset.

The movie’s main character is Daniel (Ange Dargent), a budding artist who is far too serious for his age. That’s what his classmates tell him anyway. Daniel has little time for them (well, except for a girl who has little time for him). But then a new kid joins the class. Théo (Théophile Baquet) is a free spirit who is quickly nicknamed Gasoline because his habit of tinkering with engines leaves behind the faint air of fuel. Each odd in their own way, Daniel and Théo form a bond and eventually concoct a plan to build their own car and take a road trip across France.

Surely this is where the movie would go full Gondry. This is the guy, after all, whose last film (Mood Indigo) featured a cloud car floating above the streets of Paris. Yet Gondry refrains from indulging his imagination (the car-building montage is brief and light on found-object flourishes) in favor of building a realistic emotional richness. In detailing the relationship between these two boys and the roiling realities of adolescence they face, the movie is less like Gondry’s wildly whimsical Be Kind Rewind and more like Truffaut’s deeply personal The 400 Blows. Previously, I wouldn’t have thought to compare the two filmmakers beyond the fact that they’re both French.

Deep boyhood friendships can be formed from such simple things.

The two lead performances are key to the emotional texture of the film—as well as a reminder of what a strong director of actors Gondry has always been. As Daniel, Dargent conjures the frustration of a kid whose mind has outgrown childhood well before his body. (His sheepish conversation with Théo about masturbation perfectly captures his adolescent angst.) Baquet—who has one previous screen credit to Dargent’s none—is the more experienced and confident of the two, sporting a red pleather jacket, a la Michael Jackson, and a voluminous flop of hair. Théo is a rejuvenating force for Daniel (“School bullies are tomorrow’s victims,” he assures him) and the delightful life force of the film.

Most importantly, the two actors share a natural, easy rapport. There is an early scene in which Théo watches Daniel and his brother playing soccer. After Daniel’s brother scores a goal, the three recreate the play in “slow motion,” Théo providing a drawn-out commentary from the sidelines. Deep boyhood friendships can be formed from such simple things.

There’s also sadness to their relationship. Both Daniel and Théo feel disconnected enough from school and family to run—I mean, drive—away. (Save for Daniel’s mother, played by Audrey Tatou, the parents mostly treat these kids like gnats they’re not allowed to swat.) It’s revealing that the motto for the boys’ trip—“Let’s kick the future’s ass!”—doesn’t quite jibe with their destination: the summer camp Théo fondly remembers attending when he was 8. In a way, these young adults are actually in search of the childhood they left behind too soon.