Though a main subject of “My Life as a Zucchini” is the past and present travails of children in a foster home, this animated feature from Swiss-born director Claude Barras entertains and plucks the right emotional strings. It’s moving but not maudlin, and there’s humor in addition to compassion.
This French-language offering nominated for a best animation Oscar employs a venerable animation technique — stop-motion using modeling clay — to recount the story of Icare (Icarus in French), a boy with an exceptionally large head and eyes, and blue hair. His irascible single mother, possessing an inordinate appetite for beer, has saddled him with the nickname “courgette” (“zucchini”).
A tragic event sends him to a welcoming foster home, which he will share with a half-dozen other orphans. Before he arrives, he has a long and touching interview with a sympathetic policeman, Raymond, who is moved by the boy’s story. Small details count for a lot in movies like this; a notable one is that Zucchini takes one keepsake to the foster home to remind him of Mom: an empty beer can.
As Zucchini learns to overcome his reticence and defends himself against Simon, a rather sad bully, we learn the stories of the other children. One boy’s father is in prison for armed robbery; a girl witnessed a murder-suicide. But the film, scripted by Céline Sciamma, declines to use these tragic stories to squeeze emotion out of us. They are simply the realities that the youngsters have had to experience.
Overall, the foster home isn’t the worst place they could be. There’s a nice set piece in which the kids take a field trip to the snow, and there’s plenty of amusing camaraderie on display. In addition, Zucchini gets a boost from a couple of relationships: The cop Raymond shows continuing interest in his well-being, and the boy develops a crush on Camille, one of the other orphans.
There may be a few overly wistful moments here, but in the main it’s an affecting portrait of a group of unlucky but resilient children. The original novel was apparently a darker vision, and the filmmaker has said that he nudged the story to focus on the youngster’s rebirth. “We wanted to open the film to the children without closing it to the adults,” he has written, and I think he has done a very good job of it.
(The version playing at the Tivoli Cinemas is dubbed in English, with voice work by Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Amy Sedaris and Ellen Page.)
‘My Life as a Zucchini’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:06.