Just when it seemed as though 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' director Michel Gondry would be lost in the clouds forever (last year’s dreamy 'Mood Indigo' was pure self-parody), he comes back down to earth with a winsomely grounded coming-of-age tale that makes the most of his talents. For a filmmaker who often seems more interested in manufacturing bespoke whimsy than making good movies, the premise of Gondry’s latest seems like a recipe for disaster: two French teen misfits run away from home by building a small house, outfitting it with an engine and wheels, and sputtering away into the French countryside.
This time, however, Gondry doesn’t recklessly impose his fanciful imagination on his characters: The eponymous kids at the heart of Microbe and Gasoline are only concerned with where their creativity can literally take them. Microbe (Ange Dargent), of course, goes by a nickname—that’s just what the kids at school call him. An androgynous shrimp with no friends and one very overbearing mom (Amélie star Audrey Tautou), Microbe is desperate for someone who doesn’t see him as the runt of the litter. Enter Gasoline (Theophile Baquet), a gearhead transfer student who wheels into his new school like a pubescent Danny Zuko, still more interested in wrenches than women. The two outcasts become quick pals, their bond as sturdy and adorably strange as the car they transform into a mobile one-bedroom apartment (complete with plants along the window sill).
The early passages of 'Microbe and Gasoline' are unrecognizably sedate when compared to the majority of Gondry’s work, and that barely changes once the boys hit the road. While the story careens toward the kind of quirkiness that have caused the director’s previous films to stall out (detours include a lonely dentist, an Asian brothel and a very convenient drawing contest), it often strikes a sublime harmony between the manic zaniness of Louis Malle's 1960 headrush 'Zazie dans le métro' and the bittersweet anarchy of François Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows'.
Gondry, perhaps seeing Microbe as a stand-in for himself, allows these characters to return him to the simplicity of childhood abandon and a time when fantasy was a part of real life rather than an escape from it. From its mundane beginnings to its melancholy closing grace note, Microbe and Gasoline is such a wonderfully touching film because it remembers the urgency of wanting to get older without growing up.