A wife, years after her husband left her, has an abhorrent drinking problem that leaves cans of beer scattered across her house. Her 9-year-old son hides away in his room; a kite hanging from his balcony, as he sorts some beer cans into a tower. Unfortunately, he loses his balance and knocks all the cans down, which spill down the stairs. His mother is incensed, and he's worried what she's going to do to him. Shortly after, the boy's mother is dead, having fallen down the stairs after the boy slams the door on her, afraid.
While this sounds like a haunting cold open to an episode of Law and Order, this is actually the opening sequence of My Life as a Zucchini, a French animated film that holds very mature themes and plenty of heart. From Swiss director Claude Barras, My Life as a Zucchini might not be suitable for the youngest of viewers, but it's one of the best animated movies of the year (if you saw its name in the Best Animated Feature category for this year's Oscars and didn't know what it was, it very much deserves to be there).
My Life as a Zucchini follows the aforementioned 9-year-old boy Icare — or as he prefers to be called, Zucchini, a nickname his mother used to give him. Zucchini is sent to an orphanage after his mother's death, and when he arrives to the orphanage he's introduced to a group of orphan kids, each with a disturbing backstory as to why they got there. To give you an idea, one kid was sent to the orphanage because both of his parents were drug users; another's mother was an immigrant and was deported while she was at school, and she runs to the entrance any time a car shows up, hoping it's her; one kid shows sign of physical abuse from her father (with a scar around one eye); and another witnessed a murder-suicide that left both of her parents dead.
Yeah, this is some heavy shit. It helps, however, that the film is told through the perspective of Zucchini, who is less privy to some of the most gruesome details of the story than the viewer, and like other orphans, just wants to be loved. His spirits are lifted when a new girl, Camille, shows up to the orphanage and they instantly strike a bond.
The scenes between Zucchini and Camille are the film's most light-heartened and adorable, highlighted by Zucchini's attempts to hold her hand and kiss her cheek. Though again — and I say this having loved this film — My Life as a Zucchini's potential as a movie for viewers of any age is undercut by some very adult humor. Take a conversation between the boys at the orphanage at night, discussing "the thing" that happens between men and women. The thing, of course, being sex. What one kid described as the act of copulating was hilarious, but also, not kid-friendly by any means.
"It's kind of weird," Simon explains to the other boys. "First, you kind of wiggle around. The girl, she kinda wiggles around too and then all of a sudden: Pow! He explodes."
Unnerving sex talk notwithstanding, My Life as a Zucchini does an excellent job fleshing out the other orphans aside from Zucchini. Each kid in the orphanage feels fully formed with their own distinct (if not really upsetting) backstories, and even in the film's short 66-minute runtime takes the time to provide closure for most of its minor characters beyond Zucchini and Camille. For instance, the little girl with the scar can be extremely expressive without the use of dialogue — we can discern her mood from whether or not she covers her scarred eye with her hair. Little moments like this sprinkled throughout My Life as a Zucchini are invaluable in sum.
While My Life as a Zucchini won't be considered a potential upset win it its Oscars category, it's by no means of a lesser quality than its high-budget peers in Zootopia and Moana. It boasts a compelling story that digs at the insecurities of children who have experienced profound loss and trauma, and has enough levity that it isn't weighed down by the heavy themes. Really, the big question for parents who may take their kids to see the film: Did you already give them "the talk"? Because it might be better than Simon explaining, "the thing."
My Life as a Zucchini arrives in select U.S. theaters Feb. 24. The film will be available in its original French as well as an English dub.