My Life as a Courgette – first look

A big film in a small package: Claude Barras’s children’s animation, written by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma, broaches downbeat themes with charm, heart and smarts.

Wendy Ide
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My Life as a Courgette (2016)

An achingly melancholy stop-motion animation about childhood tragedy, abandonment and the malleable nature of family, My Life as a Courgette effectively tears up the rulebook for children’s cinema. Eschewing the frenetic pacing and upbeat themes of mainstream family entertainment, the film, which was penned by Céline Sciamma and is based on a book by Gilles Paris, takes a pensive, unhurried route and has an astute ear for the concerns of kids.

Courgette is the nickname bestowed on ten-year-old Icare by his alcoholic mother. After her accidental death, he clings to it. Along with one of her empty beer cans, the nickname is the only souvenir he has of a period of his life which is now over forever. His name, along with the fact that he is the new boy at the orphanage, marks Courgette out as a target for bullying from the self appointed ‘chief’ of the institution, red-headed tough guy Simon.

Visits from Raymond, the kindly policeman who handled his case, take the edge off Courgette’s unhappiness in his new home. And then another new child arrives: Camille is cool, assured and her presence seems to bring hope and cohesion to the inmates of the home. Courgette and Camille become firm friends. And Courgette’s drawings, which are incorporated as a narrative device in the film, take on a brighter, more optimistic tone. A meteorological display board, on which each of the children can choose their ‘emotional weather’ every day, seems sunnier for everyone since Camille’s arrival.

An animation style that evokes the oversized heads and shadowy, sad eyes of Tim Burton’s signature cartoon characters, and excellent voice work from the young non-professional cast, gives these claymation characters a persuasive range of expression. Director Claude Barras navigates a careful tonal path, avoiding mawkishness but never shying away from the emotional body blows which make this such a potent, if pint-sized experience.

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

Particularly effective is a sequence in which all of the children from the residential home are taken on a weekend trip to the mountains to see the snow. But they are more fascinated by the families they witness at the resort. Seven pairs of unblinking eyes stare longingly at a mother gently comforting her weeping son. Also rather poignant is Courgette and Camille’s trip to the fair with Raymond. Camille’s proficiency at a balloon-shooting sideshow gives a hint of her violent backstory.

The de facto family unit is threatened by Camille’s aunt, who wants to take custody of her niece and of the financial support awarded by the state. The threat is dealt with, ingeniously, by the children. But in the film’s bittersweet conclusion, not everyone gets to stay together forever. The message of this picture, however, is that one tragedy doesn’t necessarily define a life – a lesson for all ages, not just the older children and teens who will be the most receptive audience for this beautifully judged little gem.

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