This film was screened as part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival
Children’s fiction is built on the stories of orphans, carrying inherent challenges that are easy to understand no matter one’s background or upbringing. The question that faces any narrative concerning orphans is how to portray both the hopes and sorrows of such an experience. The French/Swiss animated film My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras, portrays and balances the lives and trials of orphan life brilliantly.
Based on a book by the same name, My Life as a Zucchini centers around a young boy named Icare, who is given the nickname Zucchini (Courgette in the original French). One day, after an accident occurs while Zucchini is playing with his mom’s empty beer cans, he ends up having to live at an orphanage. Faced with a new environment, Zucchini learns about the lives of his fellow orphans and all of their unique circumstances.
My Life as a Zucchini is animated in stop-motion, and the models used carry an eerie charm to them somewhat reminiscent of the characters in Edward Scissorhands. They can be called cute, but due to the characters’ appearances, particularly their eyes, there is a constant mix of pain and joy present in their expressions. This aesthetic matches well with the narrative content of the film, which pulls its punches only slightly in depicting the characters’ struggles. This is certainly not a film that patronizes its young target audience.
The element of the film that struck me hardest was the different varieties of sadness that existed in the children at the orphanage. Zucchini carries around a beer can; the only memento he has of his mother. One boy, Simon, is a bully of sorts, but it’s clear that he uses this bravado to mask the pain of not having his parents. One of the girls is implied to have been abused by her father, which has left her with some expressions of trauma, though it should be mentioned that the other children are shown to play with her and treat her like one of their own. Somehow, however, it is one of the cutest and seemingly innocuous moments that claws at my heart. Another girl’s mother was deported, and whenever she hears a car pull up to the orphanage she runs out and yells, “MOMMY?!” only to be disappointed over and over.
I want to emphasize that this is not a film about showing the crushing horrors of reality, and that the kids’ lives at the orphanage are portrayed with a great sense that life can get better, and that in many ways it’s not so bad for them now. After all, many are there to escape from worse circumstances, and there’s an unspoken bond of trust and understanding between Zucchini and the rest.
One surprising element of the film is that it actually talks about sex pretty candidly, especially for a kids’ movie. It takes the form of kids trying to figure out what happens when a man and a woman get together, but the statement “his willy explodes” should say it all. I have to wonder if it caught any of the parents off guard.
My Life as a Zucchini is a powerful work that resonates emotionally on many subtle levels. It’s definitely worth watching no matter your age. I see it as a way to open up to the conversation on a number of difficult topics with your loved ones, whether they’re your children, your parents, your relatives, or your friends.