If Michel Gondry could direct the formative years of actual people the way he handles the tender, fictional lives of the youngsters at the center of the adventure drama Microbe & Gasoline, the real world would be a far more compassionate place.
Three decades into his filmmaking career, it feels as if the 53-year old has come of age as a director in front of our very eyes. Since peaking in 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his films have typically revolved around characters at odds with their surroundings, often seeking to alter their entire existence instead of patching up a momentary plight as a means to get by.
Perhaps a reflection on the director’s early, simpler days, before he birthed one of the best films of the 2000s, Microbe & Gasoline sees Gondry eschewing the rules of traditional teenage dramas, crafting a nostalgic portrait of two young boys, Daniel and Theo. They’re not helplessly navigating a destitute life; they’re free-willed teenagers doing what boys do, exploring their adventurous hopes and dreams as their youthful innocence teeters on the cusp of adulthood.
Still, the boys are outcasts in their own right. Daniel is smaller than the other boys at school, a predicament worsened by his sexual immaturity and existential anxiety. Theo, however, opens the window to the world. As a new, smelly, oddball addition to Daniel’s class, he’s otherwise confident and perceptive in ways Daniel has yet to see in someone his own age. Together, they bond over a mutual desire to escape the mundanity around them, constructing a makeshift house-on-wheels they use to travel the French countryside. The pair quickly learns carrying on, however, means more than just moving forward.
The boys’ inflated sense of independence wavers when they’re forced to confront the reality waiting for them on the other side of their wide-eyed ambitions. But Gondry’s vision of teenage angst isn’t limited to the situational. His camera is observant, moving through familiar teenage spaces as it focuses on nothing (Daniel confoundedly stares at girls’ butts as they walk by) and everything (he channels those sexual frustrations into beautiful nude drawings he later masturbates to) at the same time. Here, Gondry explores the challenges of growing up with the same depth and curiosity he dedicates to adult characters, giving Microbe & Gasoline an identifiable, nostalgic core that relates to the subjects at hand instead of cautiously watching them from afar.
Microbe & Gasoline is a film that understands the importance of reconnecting with the youthful vision of the world most of us abandon as we age out of high school. It savors those fleeting moments when all the hope in the universe can seemingly rest on the tip of a teenager’s misguided tongue, or in the messy folds of their unrealistic desires that still cling to unabashed wonder. Gondry doesn’t cheat his young characters out of the complexity of impending adulthood, either. Daniel and Theo might not accomplish what they initially set out to do in all the ways they hoped to do it, but they ultimately realize the journey weighs more than whatever’s waiting on the other side. That sentiment registers as a cathartic mantra Gondry seems to be telling himself as much as he imparts it upon his audience, and, by the end of Microbe & Gasoline, we feel a little closer to the boy who made the man behind the camera as a result. A-