Here on this blog, we’ve unintentionally managed to cover just about every animation nominee for the 2017 Academy Awards in one way or another. Not that I particularly care about the Academy or their opinion, but after giving some page space to Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootopia, and Moana, it felt kind of strange to just ignore the other two films and my artsy ass can never resist delving into productions by lesser known studios. So I set out to tackle the first of these two films: My Life as a Zucchini (or Ma Vie de Courgette in the original French). Distributed by Gebeka Films and premiering at the 2016 film festival in Cannes, the quirky stop-motion film tackles a surprisingly dark subject, and does it well. However, as with most things, this doesn’t mean it was devoid of problems.
Spoilers below and trigger warning for mentions of child abuse.
We’re immediately introduced to the poor living conditions that Icare, the young boy who’s our main character, is subjected to: his mother sits in front of the television drinking beer as he is left to his own devices, and each room of their home is littered in beer cans. Icare keeps to himself, but while attempting to build a tall tower of beer cans in a room in the attic, he ends up knocking them down the stairs. This noise makes his mother focus her ire on Icare and she climbs the stairs in order to punish him; in desperation, he shuts the attic door on her. The impact from this shakes his mother’s balance off the stairway and in a troubling turn of events, ends up killing her.
After telling his situation to a kind policeman named Raymond, Icare—who goes by Zucchini, the name his mother called him—is dropped off at an orphanage, where Raymond promises to visit him every so often. Zucchini has trouble acclimatizing at first, not quite grasping that his mother is dead now, and things are not made easier with the presence of another young boy, Simon. Simon initially bullies Zucchini, but the two eventually warm up to each other as Zucchini gets to know the other children at the orphanage.
The main plot is introduced by a mysterious girl named Camille, who appears to be in better spirits and better adjusted than many of the other children who were left at the orphanage, despite being seemingly abandoned by her aunt. She keeps her reasons for being there to herself, joking that her parents were eaten by a T-rex, but Simon and Zucchini discover that Camille saw her father murder her mother and then kill himself. As the children continue to have fun and be friends together, they learn that Camille’s aunt wants to force Camille to live with her so she gets the insurance money. So through some clever maneuvers, Simon manages to give Camille the tool she needs to gather evidence of her aunt’s abuse, giving the judge enough proof that Camille’s aunt is not suited to legally adopt her.
Throughout the film, Raymond kept his promise to Zucchini and has visited him many times. The two form a close relationship, and eventually Raymond asks the orphanage, as well as Zucchini and Camille (with whom he had also spent some time), if he can adopt both Zucchini and Camille. Zucchini struggles with his choice, not wanting to leave this family he’s become a part of, and Simon makes it harder by getting angry at both of them for leaving. Yet when Zucchini speaks to Simon afterwards, telling him that he won’t go, it’s Simon who tells Zucchini that he must go, understanding only too well that older children—especially “problem children”—getting adopted is a rarity. The film ends with Camille and Zucchini happily adjusting to life with Raymond, but also sending letters back to the orphanage, making sure the others know that the two haven’t forgotten them.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I started this film, but it definitely wasn’t what I got. My Life As A Zucchini avoids a visceral depiction of child abuse and instead focuses on the effects of this abuse. Many of the children have adapted coping mechanisms and safety items to make it through their day. Though he never hears anything good about his father, Zucchini crafted a kite with his father’s likeness on it, dressed as though he were a superhero. And despite the abuse suffered at her hands, Zucchini clearly still adores his mother, and brought one of her beer cans to the orphanage as a memento of her. Though Zucchini himself seems somewhat detached from everything, these two items are the most important things to him in the world and so he lashes out at whoever is touching them without permission. Later on in the film, Zucchini gives Camille a boat he made from that very same beer can, and it’s a powerful moment that shows Zucchini is healing.
While none of the other children are given such an arc, their moments still show how devastating child abuse can be. Alice, one of the girls at the orphanage, begins tapping on things whenever she gets nervous. Simon later explains that the tapping reminds her of the clunking noises of the refrigerator in her parents’ home. A bit afterwards, when it’s implied that she was sexually abused by her father, another reason for her tic becomes clear, showing that the tapping isn’t necessarily a comforting thing for her but potentially something she does to disassociate from a stressful situation. Another boy at the orphanage, Jujube, seems to have had a mother who was obsessed with cleanliness. Thus, Jujube learned to clean everything by eating it—he was even encouraged to eat toothpaste because it was clean. Simon’s parents were druggies who tried to placate him with material items instead of actual affection. As such, every perceived threat to the friendship he’s managed to make is met with anger. For example, when Zucchini first arrives, Simon treats him unkindly until they become friends, and then when Camille first arrives, Simon especially doesn’t like her because she gets along so well with everyone else. After getting to know both of them, when he discovers that Zucchini and Camille might be leaving, he lashes out and hides away, not wanting to lose these members of his found family. It’s simple to look at a child being abused and say “that’s wrong”, but it’s also important to understand both how abuse can affect children and that abuse shouldn’t make them less “desirable” for adoption. They are still loving kids, but loving kids in need of understanding and patience.
What I especially didn’t expect from this film was a look at the effects of xenophobia and racism on children. Bea, a young Black girl, was left at the orphanage after her mother was deported back to Africa without her. Because of this, Bea has no idea when or if her mother will ever come for her and has started running outside each time a car comes, hoping each time that it’s her. The sad thing about Bea’s story is that even when her mother does come back for her at the end, Bea doesn’t know what to do and ends up staying at the orphanage because she has developed more of a familial connection with them than her mother. Then there’s Ahmed, a young boy of Middle Eastern descent, who lives in the orphanage because his father was arrested and jailed for stealing. While stealing is wrong, it’s revealed that Ahmed’s father was stealing something for Ahmed, which gives the impression that his father wasn’t making a living wage. Furthermore, given France’s (and Europe’s) continued pushback against refugees, it’s not hard to assume that Ahmed’s father was perhaps not only in the wrong place at the wrong time, but treated more harshly because of his race. Ahmed, too, is a target of racism even though he’s just a child. When the orphanage goes on a ski trip, he meets a young white girl who lets him try on her ski goggles. Enraged, her mother berates Ahmed, calling him a thief and a liar, which he takes very hard. Both Bea and Ahmed have to deal with racism in different ways, but it’s clear that this film is trying to say that Europe’s racist asses are making life shit for children, and they need to stop.
The major failing of the film, to me, was the unnecessary romance between Zucchini and Camille. I will admit that as a child, I probably would have really enjoyed this development, but as an adult I’m kind of stuck seeing it as a weird inclusion of heteronormativity, as well as putting in some bad examples for children. Zucchini’s crush on Camille is not a problem in and of itself; however, it leads him to do some pretty side-eye worthy things. First, when Camille isn’t forthcoming with the reason why she was put in the orphanage in the first place, both he and Simon sneak into the director of the orphanage’s office and read her file, going behind her back entirely. This breach of privacy never has any consequences: the director never finds out and when Camille becomes aware of it, she just kind of shrugs. I’m not saying the boys should get punished, but it would have been nice for Camille to at least be like, “I wish you would have waited for me to tell you,” or something.
Furthermore, on the way back home from the ski trip, Zucchini kisses Camille while she’s asleep. While this is a very child-like thing to do, and it wasn’t done skeevily, it still takes Camille’s consent out of the picture. Later on, Camille reveals that she was actually awake when the kiss happened, but it doesn’t change that Zucchini thought that she was asleep when he did it. Teaching children consent early is such an important thing, and since the movie already did this so well when it came to the adults in the orphanage and the children (such as listening to Zucchini when he doesn’t consent to being called Icare) it’s weird and uncomfortable that the writer chose to ignore it here. As a final note, since Zucchini and Camille basically become siblings at the end of the film, it’s even weirder to have this reciprocal crush situation—why couldn’t they just be really good friends?
While I’m sad that My Life as a Zucchini hasn’t become more well-known in the public hivemind despite its Oscar nomination, at the same time, I can understand why. The film ends on a bittersweet high note, but it doesn’t erase the heaviness of the rest of the film: there remain children who need to be adopted, and who are fully aware that they probably never will be. Still, I find the film very important because it highlights issues that manage to slip into that “this is bad, but eh” section of our minds, and doesn’t shy away from addressing it in a way children will be able to relate to and understand. If you can, I’d recommend giving it a watch, but don’t expect to leave feeling uplifted.