Microbe & Gasoline (2015)

In high school, Théo Leloir (Théophile Baquet) is the new kid on the block, an oddball with an inventive streak and a talent for mechanics. It’s not long until ‘Gasoline,’ as he’s nicknamed by snickering classmates, befriends the short, softly spoken Daniel Guéret (Ange Dargent), or as he’s more generally known — ‘Microbe.’ Daniel, as it turns out, happens to be smitten with classmate Laura (Diane Besnier) and despite encouragement from his new pal Théo, seems destined to remain in the dreaded ‘friend-zone’ perpetually.

Feeling generally unappreciated and rebellious, the two outcasts hatch an audacious secret plan to build their own means of transport out of space parts. As their scheme evolves, they end up with a portable mini house on wheels and embark on a road trip across France, escaping their families for the summer break. Along their journey, the pair attempts to dodge cops, keep up with fuel on a miniscule budget and make sense of a number of random rendezvous.

Munch Buddies
Munch Buddies

Charming, playful, whimsical and nostalgic. A few words that summarize one half of writer-director Michel Gondry’s idiosyncratic career across music videos, documentaries and feature films; see the best culmination of this side in his Jack Black starring comedy, Be Kind Rewind (2008), in which Black and rapper Mos Def play video-store clerks who re-create beloved movies in a no-budget way with a lot of love and passion.

The other (lesser known) half of the French director’s filmography is rather melancholic with themes of regret a major focus. The most pronounced take on this material is easily the beloved cult hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), in which Jim Carrey attempts to literally erase his memory of a past love.

In Gondry’s latest feature comedy Microbe & Gasoline, he is largely concerned with his lighter side, but even during some laugh-out-loud setups manages to brush against the mellow.

There are many encounters in the film, but the highlight involves the sudden appearance of a dentist (Laurent Poitrenaux) and his wife (Hélène Alexandridis) who insist that Daniel and Théo stay in their children’s old bedrooms. While the laughs come thickly during a late-night escape, the dentist (amongst the chaos) confesses the sadness his wife feels the next morning, not seeing her children at home anymore. Funny, with a drop of sadness.

Surprisingly, for a director long known and celebrated for his intensive and inventive special effects, often using incredibly intricate plans and obsessive details to create astonishing hand-made magic on screen, here there is little to none — the practically built mini house-vehicle being the star attraction. Gondry’s attention is otherwise solely dedicated to realizing the friendship of these young outsiders and it genuinely charms as a result.

Kids, don't try this at home!
Kids, don’t try this at home!

It appears that the 52-year-old filmmaker has sought to answer his harshest critics who have only ever seen him as a great music video stylist, rather than a feature film storyteller. I would argue he’s always had it in him, it’s just his storytelling style puts far more emphasis on child-like wonder and discovery opposed to hard-lined plot structures. And what says discovery better than a road trip?

The two lead actors Théophile Baquet, War of the Buttons (2011), and Ange Dargent – making his feature debut – play off each other well, having a real sense of camaraderie and fun. Audrey Tautou, Mood Indigo (2013), appears as Microbe’s mother Marie-Thérèse, in what is ultimately a rather small and thankless role for the famous French actress. Again, however, it’s Laurent Poitrenaux’s desperate dentist that I simply can’t forget.

While, on the surface Microbe & Gasoline stands as a notable shift in gear for the whimsical Gondry, it very much calls towards the ideas he seems to be endlessly fascinated by and represents the director at his simplest, but still quite delightful self. It’s certainly worth the trip for those who can identify with nostalgic coming-of-age adventures.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Microbe & Gasoline is released through Studio Canal Australia