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Entries in Microbe & Gasoline [2015] (1)

Friday
Jul292016

Microbe & Gasoline (2015)

The Spare

You weren’t supposed to read this. Last month, I wrote nine-tenths of a glowing review about Michel Gondry’s Microbe & Gasoline. After hitting a block in the home stretch, I decided to shelve the piece until closer to the film’s Chicago release date. Somewhere in that time, all nine hundred words vanished. Whether I'd written over the file or deleted the draft by mistake, the end results were the same: a deflated feeling of head-smacking regret; little energy with which to re-assemble whatever combination of words I’d been satisfied with a month ago; and a diminishing memory of Microbe & Gasoline’s specifics.

Melancholy be damned. I choose to follow the lead of Gondry’s protagonists, who also faced a major setback in their grand plans. Like them, I’ll use what I have at hand and improvise.

First thing’s first: 2016 is officially “The Year Ian Finally ‘Gets It’: Beloved Filmmaker Edition”. Between Nicholas Winding Refn, Paul Feig, and now Michel Gondry, I’ve spent months falling in love with the new films of directors I typically hate. Gondry’s filmography has been a particular tough spot for me. My wife and I saw a free, advance screening of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, and left the theatre with a fiery impulse to rip the venue apart, brick by brick. Neither Be Kind Rewind nor The Green Hornet did anything to dissuade me from thinking of Gondry as a skilled artisan whose obsession with developmentally arrested man-children protagonists would forever keep me at several arms’ lengths from his films’ technical accomplishments.

The writer/director turns a corner with his latest by telling a story about teenagers who must navigate the bumpy road to adulthood, instead of giving us ostensible adults who are allowed by friends, family, and society to never stop acting like teenagers.* Where others use the word “whimsy” to praise the filmmaker, I’ve long considered it a crutch, a smokescreen of hand-made fantasy meant to distract viewers from the fact that Gondry’s ostensible heroes are often simpering, immature jerks.

Not so here. Ange Dargent plays Daniel, a shy runt of a fourteen-year-old artist whose classmates nickname him “Microbe”. One day, a red-leather-jacket-wearing new kid named Théo (Théophile Baquet) makes a terrible impression on the entire student body by driving his loud, smelly motor-bike through the schoolyard. He instantly becomes known as “Gasoline”, and makes fast friends with fellow outcast Daniel.

During their summer break, the boys decide to drive across France. Using scraps from the local dump, they collaborate on a vehicle and come up with a plan to fool their parents for the duration of their road trip. Unfortunately, neither boy has a license, and their car isn’t street legal. Daniel and Théo solve this problem by building a miniature house on top of their “car. If they spot a cop on their journey, they reason, all they have to do is pull over and pretend to be a miniature residence.

As you might expect, once Microbe and Gasoline hit the road, the film becomes a series of misadventures that test the characters’ notions of adulthood and friendship. Early on, Théo loses the iPhone that his older brother gave him for emergencies, a decision that eventually leaves the boys without a lifeline when they become cashless and homeless. There’s the requisite Big Fight, the requisite Big Make-up, and the not-so-requisite Escape from an Asian Massage Parlor/Organized Crime Front.

Gondry’s playfulness (dare I say, his “whimsy”) shines through in the details of what would otherwise be little more than a French riff on Stand By Me. Aside from a climactic fantasy sequence involving an airplane, and a last-minute swap from omniscient- to first-person perspective, Gondry keeps his nonsensical impulses in check. We see Daniel and Théo grow up before our eyes. As the darkness of the adult world encroaches on their idyllic young-teendom, they must broaden the scope of their creative collaboration, feeding off of and learning from each other’s strengths (Daniel is the artist, Théo the philosopher) in order to survive.

Gondry is driving at something deeper than mere survival here. Microbe & Gasoline is a conspicuous celebration of the tactile, an ode to simpler pre-omnipresent-tech times, when kids actually did things together, outside of planned, structured activities; when they looked each other in the eyes during conversations; when screens only occasionally showed up in the background of everyone’s lives. Théo doesn’t just lose that iPhone, he inadvertently drops it in a hole he’d dug in the woods—a hole he subsequently fills with shit. This is the calligraphic signature on Gondry’s love-letter to cord-cutting, and to all the lovely conversations we can have and things we can make when artificial distractions aren’t competing with other artificial distractions.

I don’t recall the name of the girl Daniel crushed on, or what particular ailment afflicted Théo’s mom back home. But I remember the feeling I had when the boys first got out on the country road in their unwieldy house-car. It’s an exhilarated feeling that’s even more vivid now, for whatever reason, than when I first wrote about Microbe & Gasoline in that ill-fated first draft. Life presents us all with daunting, curl-up-and-cry situations, but there’s a lot to be said for making them work.

*Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Gondry’s 2012 film, The We and the I, which also centers on younger characters—so he may very well have started rounding that corner years ago.