When a debut animated feature by Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras was nominated alongside Disney and a co-production with Studio Ghibli in this year’s Academy Awards, it raised a few eyebrows. But with a screenplay written by Girlhood director Céline Sciamma, this short yet sweet debut is a surprising coming-of-age film.

Based on the 2002 novel by Gilles Paris, My Life as a Courgette (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) follows a young boy called Zucchini (voiced by Erick Abbate) who is sent to a foster home after the death of his neglectful mother. There, he begins to bond with other foster kids and settles into his new home.

The film deals with surprisingly grown-up issues that darken’s the sweet, innocent animation. Themes such as bereavement, neglect and companionship, along with concerning psychological behaviours are subtlety dealt through Courgette and his eccentric friends, which marks a contrast to many animated films that have a tendency to build up a fantastical reality. As a result, My Life as a Courgette is a refreshingly bold feature that isn’t afraid to delve into darker psychological issues among children.

But this feature retains its innocence via its clever animation and its focus on the feel-good factor. Barras guides audiences through the film by allowing them to watch life through Courgette’s guileless eyes, so every emotion and connection he experiences touches the heart. Complemented by Sciamma’s simple dialogue, the controlled vocal performances from a cast that includes Ellen Page, Will Forte and Amy Sedaris, and the film’s bright colours, it appeals to adults and children alike, and is definitely on the route to become a modern classic.

Overall, My Life as a Courgette is utterly charming. Beautifully animated and incredibly sweet, it is an entertaining feature debut from Barras.

My Life as a Courgette is out in UK cinemas on 2 June.

Director: Claude Barras, Céline Sciamma (scr).
Stars: Erick Abbate, Ellen Page, Will Forte, Ness Krell, Amy Sedaris, Nick Offerman
Runtime: 66 
minutes
Country: Switzerland, France

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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Roughly half of the films competing in the Official Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival clock-in at close to or longer than 2-and-a-half-hours in length. And yet on every level My Life As A Courgette, a 66-minute masterpiece made by Swiss director Claude Barras, is likely to achieve more than any of those films could ever dream of.

Taken from a literary tale by French writer and journalist Gilles Paris, we first meet young Courgette (Gaspard Schlatter) as he plays in his room; building a kite and crafting a tower out of drinks cans. His beautiful blue locks are what first capture our attention, but what quickly pulls our gaze are the thin lines around his eyes that light up against his pale complexion. Courgette’s childhood is lonely – said cans are the empty beer tins collected from the floor that surrounds his alcoholic single mother, who sits in almost permanent stasis on the sofa – but it’s one with which he is comfortable and content; his own suffering mentally masked by his active imagination. Things change, however, after his mother is killed in an abrupt accident.

Adopting a similar animated style to that of Max Lang & Jakob Schuh’s The Gruffolo, Barras’ simple but stunning stop-motion carries a childish innocence that conveys the emotive crux of the film. This is a tale of tragedy seen through the eyes of someone who, though he may not be old enough to comprehend everything he experiences, is able to understand far more than we are likely to give him credit for; the longing and sadness in Courgette’s heart amplified through the softly shattering strings of Sophie Hunger’s gentle score.

Forced to go and live at Fontaines foster home, Courgette soon finds himself having to try and connect with other children who are as damaged & isolated as he is. These include Alice, whose father was taken away from her because of “inappropriate behaviour”, Camille, a witness to her own parent’s murder-suicide, and Simon, a bequiffed bully whose home life was broken by his dad’s drug addiction.

The script, written by Girlhood and Tomboy director Céline Sciamma, is never afraid to confront such provocative material head-on, but strikingly, it refuses to bow to convention in its approach; shunning melodrama and manipulation, and instead favouring a measured melancholy so potent it has the power to slay you. “There’s no one left to love us” says Simon pensively at one point – not since Pixar’s Up has an animated film been so profusely affecting.

Crucially, there’s an intrinsic balance of humour to help soothe our aching hearts; ranging from harmless adventures in the snow, to delightfully naïve discussions about whether a man’s “willy explodes” when he’s doing “the thing”. And, perhaps most importantly, as Courgette learns to look to the future whilst realising he should never wholly let go of the past, there’s also a genuine air of hope, which cuts through the underlying despair. Sure, it may be set in a world built with Plasticine, but My Life with Courgette feels profoundly real.

Director: Claude Barras
Stars: Michel Vuillermoz, Natacha Koutchoumov, Paulin Jaccoud
Runtime: 66
Country: Switzerland, France

Film Rating: ★★★★★

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