Filmmaking with the Mindset of a Twelve-Year-Old: "Microbe & Gasoline"

in 20th International Film Festival for Children and Young Audience, Chemnitz

by Leo Bankersen

Microbe & GasolineIt was a surprise to see Microbe & Gasoline, Michel Gondry’s latest, opening the Schlingel festival for children and young audiences.

Do we know Gondry as a maker of children’s films? No. Did youngsters flock to go and see his wonderfully strange love stories The Science of Sleep (2006) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)? Probably not, although they may have appreciated the video clips he also used to make at that time. Have I ever seen one of his films in a programme for children or teenagers? I can’t remember.

Still, the decision of Schlingel to choose Gondry to get audiences in the right mood seems inspiring. And it’s not as if he suddenly made something completely different. Let’s not forget that Gondry himself once said in an interview that in some way he still is a twelve-year-old boy. Or maybe fourteen in this case, that being the age of the two nerdy kids who in Microbe & Gasoline set off on an adventure entirely of their own making.

Yes, it must have been the kid in Gondry that came up with a story like this. The two boys hit the road in a car they built themselves, which could be described as a ramshackle summerhouse on wheels, powered by the motor of a lawnmower. After the surrealism of Mood Indigo (L’Écume des jours, 2013) this is definitely pleasantly relaxed.

Microbe is the nickname of fourteen-year-old Daniel, who is so skinny that he’s often taken for a girl. Theo, the new kid in school, is soon called Gasoline because he likes tinkering with engines. Though smart and pretty confident, he’s just as much an outsider as the shy Daniel. They become the friends they both have been longing for. Their hands get equally dirty, Theo’s from oil from the garage, Daniel’s from the paint he uses to good effect as a promising young artist. Even the porn that he needs as a debutant and not yet very successful masturbator he draws himself.

Compared to Gondry’s other films, all this is pretty realistic, probably because a lot of it is autobiographically inspired, especially in the first half. Still, it is also infused with a touch of that special home-made Gondry weirdness, with exactly the right mixture of absurdism, seriousness and naivety. All put together with a pleasant disrespect for the rules of story-telling, just as if it had indeed been made up by a twelve or fourteen-year-old. In some ways, the film itself looks a bit like this home-made contraption which the boys use as their car.

It’s a film that, also by its form, gets you into the mindset of those two somewhat eccentric and creative boys: two young teenagers with their own unconventional way of reasoning, haphazardly finding their way in that carefree, worrying yet enviable no-man’s-land between childhood and maturity. Despite the loose storyline and a few dreamlike episodes, the emotional line is always firm, believable and realistic.

With parents who are too much taken with their own, sometimes tragic troubles, the kids have to find out things pretty much on their own: how it works with girls, how to solve their quarrels, and how to deal with angry rugby gangs and Korean hairdressers who also offer a massage. And how to find ways to look less like a girl. Somehow, this shed on wheels is a wonderful image to capture all this, not unlike the cardboard cars or cellophane waves in The Science of Sleep. It’s all about discovery and imagination, a coming-of-age story that aligns itself with the confusion that the boys experience. A story that doesn’t offer clear-cut solutions or happy-endings, but rather concludes with a wonderfully melancholic touch.

The question remains, though, whether this will be a film for a young audience: Schlingel grades it 12+. I’m pretty sure that Gondry did not make the film with this target group in mind; rather you might say he made it with the mindset of a kid. It’s one of those movies that demonstrate that films for kids and adults do not have to be separate categories.

So it could go both ways: for the adult viewer it appeals to a sense of nostalgia, without romanticising anything. A trip back in time to that special age. On the other hand, it seems quirky enough to appeal to young viewers, with very recognisable characters going against the grain of the ordered adult world. An often comical, but heartfelt discovery trip with a fair dose of nerd-power and a welcome bow to spontaneity and creativity. Of course, kids who grew up with American television series and teenage movies might find it a bit odd. But then, you can never be young enough to have your mind tickled by Gondry.

Edited by Birgit Beumers