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“My Life as a Zucchini,” the Story of a Quite Extraordinary Childhood

Lauded at Cannes and nominated at the Golden Globes, the Césars and the Oscars, My Life as a Zucchini proves that French animation can more than hold its own against Hollywood’s 3D blockbusters. Directed by Swiss film maker Claude Barras and written by French screenwriter Céline Sciamma, the movie was made using one of the oldest techniques in cinema, called stop-motion. This beautiful story of an orphaned child is out in U.S. theatres on Friday 24 February.

Difficult childhoods have never ceased to inspire literature and film, from Charles Perrault’s fairy tales and François Truffaut’s autobiographical movies (The 400 Blows) to the works of figures such as Disney and Tim Burton. My Life as a Zucchini is another addition to this list. The little Zucchini in question, whose real name is Icare, lives along with his alcoholic mother in their house strewn with empty beer cans. One evening, she turns on her son in a drunken rage, and he accidently pushes her down the stairs to her death. Icare is placed in a foster home, and learns how to live again with other children who, like him, have been starved of love.

This adaptation of French writer Gilles Paris’ novel Autobiographie d’une courgette, offers a frank take on how children rebuild their lives after a family tragedy. The children in the orphanage all sport disproportionate dark rings around their eyes. All are victims of pedophilia, or children of deported immigrants, criminals or drug addicts, and resemble little zombies in the style of Tim Burton (think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). While the novel was aimed more at parents, Claude Barras sought to make his adaptation more accessible to young audiences. The result is a multi-layered film to be enjoyed by all ages.

With this in mind, the bleak subject matter is systematically counterbalanced with humor. The cheeky children are reminiscent of the main character in the comic series Titeuf by Swiss artist Philippe Chappuis (Zep). In one scene, one of the children tells the others, in all seriousness, that his father likes hens. After all, he went off with “some chick,” as his mother used to say. Viewers will also learn than sexual relations are as easy as 1, 2, 3, according to the children: “You kind of wiggle around,” then “he explodes.” The humor is gentle, but certain cautious parents may prefer to skip these passages.

Making the film in stop-motion animation was no mean feat. The technique consists of crafting the scenes, characters and costumes with modeling clay, moving each object a millimeter at a time and filming image by image to obtain around three seconds of footage per day. The same technique was used in the successful 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, as well as for Wallace and Gromit, and many films by American director Henry Selick, best known for Coraline, James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas (produced by Tim Burton).

The 66-minute movie required two years of filming, and more than 100 technicians and artists. The graphics are particularly meticulous, the shots are beautifully executed, and the work is filled with impressive sequences. Screenwriter Céline Sciamma (director of Tomboy and Girlhood) couldn’t resist adding a very personal soundtrack, both sensitive and rock. In one particularly joyful scene, the children and adults all dance to the new-wave track “Eisbar” by Grauzone (an amazing band headed by front man Stéphane Eicher) and one of the children consoles himself by listening to “Salut à toi” by punk band Bérurier Noir. Generation Y will feel right at home. The end credits roll to the sounds of a sentimental cover of the rock song “Le vent nous portera” by Noir Désir, sung by Sophie Hunger.

My Life as a Zucchini received a warm welcome when presented at the Directors’ Fortnight for Cannes 2016, and won two awards at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, from both the jury and the public. And the accolades are well-deserved. While the film lost the award for Best Animated Film to Zootopia (Disney) at the Golden Globes, it is in the running for the Oscars on February 26 in Los Angeles. Good luck, Zucchini!

The film will be released on Friday 24 February in New York and Los Angeles, and will then expand nationwide. You can see all locations, dates and venues on the film’s website.