At their best, Michel Gondry's movies are sad in a way that makes you not want to be happy. The problem is that Gondry's best doesn't extend far beyond Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that dream-weaving romance from more than a decade back, and scattered moments from subsequent films: The Science of Sleep, Mood Indigo.
You can add bits and pieces of Microbe and Gasoline to that list, its ending in particular — a fleeting moment that encapsulates adolescent infatuation in a few quick thought bubbles. Its bittersweetness mirrors that of the opening shot, in which one of the adolescents whose nicknames give the film its title is awakened by his alarm clock in the cool morning light. What little he sees of the day is enough for young Daniel (or Microbe, as the diminutive boy is called by his classmates) to know he'd rather return to whatever he was dreaming about, and so he hits the snooze button. Later, he'll confide to his mother (Audrey Tautou, also of Mood Indigo) that he's troubled by thoughts of his own mortality. She responds by giving him a copy of Irene Domingues' The Soul and the Universe.
Parents just don't understand, and so it's up to the new kid to “get” Daniel. Theo (aka Gasoline) is seated next to him immediately upon arriving at his new school; they're kindred spirits, of course, united by what their peers perceive as weirdness: Daniel draws and paints, Theo tinkers with cars (hence the nickname). This inevitably leads to the outcast duo building a makeshift house on wheels out of a lawnmower engine and spare parts from a salvage yard. With school out for summer, they've little choice but to take their creation as far as it will take them.
Rather than kick into gear, however, Microbe and Gasoline sputters once the kiddos hit the road. It's in the process of coming together as friends and actually putting in the grunt work of building their movable beast that the two copains enter uncharted territory; most of what follows feels like a retread despite the change in scenery.
It’s a surprise that Gondry has taken so long to make a coming-of-age film. His adult characters, though fully grown, tend toward an emotional stuntedness and are just as prone to flights of fancy as Daniel and Theo. This material is especially conducive to the writer-director's eccentric worldview, particularly two dream sequences in which the world appears to spin backward. In the first, the object of Daniel's affection emerges from a lake in uncanny fashion (an effect achieved by having the actress perform the scene backward and then reversing the footage, Twin Peaks–style); in the second, a plane ferrying the two boys home lands in reverse. Daniel alone seems to notice this, his bewilderment shared only by the viewer.
The best of these moments hang in the back of your mind like fragments of a melancholy dream you can't recall in full. Gondry has always worn his heart on his sleeve, which remains endearing — especially when he shows that he still has a few more tricks left up it.
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