Michel Gondry‘s new film Microbe & Gasoline is about a pair of teenagers, directed and written by a man now in his mid-50s. It’s not the first film by Gondry to be focused on this age group – his undervalued 2012 feature, The We and the I, examined a microcosm of modern adolescence on an MTA bus in the Bronx. His scope is narrowed to the two titular friends in Microbe & Gasoline but the director is similarly generous in conveying the rampant, inventive energy that is proverbially bottled-up, shaken, and then released in one’s teen years, especially when one’s home life is not ideal.
Indeed, the story of a rowdy, contentious, but finally crucial and comforting teenage friendship is not particularly new ground, as anyone who has read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn will know. Or if you’ve seen Superbad, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, alternatively. Microbe & Gasoline transcends even that estimable company, however, in its antic sense of design, action, and composition, an aesthetic that vibrantly expresses the know-how and imagination of the two artistically-inclined fellows at the center of the film.
It’s worth noting that the two names that adorn the title are nicknames. Socially prickly, Daniel (Ange Dargent) is gifted the name Microbe by his peers for his short, lean stature and his reputation as a sensitive, creative type that usually shrinks from attention. One day in class, Theo (Théophile Baquet) ends up in his class and with one quick, awkward utterance during the lesson, he outs himself as a performer, as a rebel against the idyll nature of the everyday. It’s later, when Theo, decked out in a Thriller-era Michael Jackson jacket, shows Daniel the noisemakers and other auditory additions he’s made to his bike that a friendship is struck up, as well as a partnership against the more conventional (and conventionally attractive) boys in their class. In fact, they come to see school as a place of maddening complacency and a haven for the mediocre.
It’s on their off hours that the two pals indulge their passions obsessively, from mechanics to painting, and if nothing else, Microbe & Gasoline should stand as a lesson to those who see the loss of arts and creative classes in school with ambivalence. And for very different reasons, Daniel and Theo’s parents are of no help in supporting their kids’ talents, especially when the exercising of those gifts is caked in the familiar recklessness of teenage behavior. Daniel’s mother (Amelie herself Audrey Tatou) has become obsessed with notions of spirituality and philosophy to the point of severe depression, while Theo’s parents are too ensconced in poverty and health issues to really care too much about what he wants out of life. Gondry shows the necessity of creative outlets in giving adolescents a sense of purpose and drive, but the filmmaker’s focus is on how they bond and interact, not how the world around them influences them.
Considering the collaborative timbre of the relationship, Microbe & Gasoline can be more seen as a reflection of Gondry’s life as an artist that is often asked to engage separate parts of his personality, as well as work with people who are very different yet strangely like-minded. Their most notable project is a makeshift go-cart home that, in the film’s second half, they take on a small adventure to a series of nearby French towns and neighborhoods, which ends in a series of incidents too delightfully odd and funny to ruin here. It’s important to note, however, that the key revelation of the film happens during the adventure: Daniel begins questioning if he’s just becoming a copy of Theo, if he’s just taking his opinions as a sort of gospel. It’s only after Daniel gets a bad haircut at a late-night rub-and-tug joint that Daniel begins to truly confront his timid way of being, but Gondry illustrates from early on that the compromise, and even self-sublimation, involved in friendly collaboration brings about a clearer sense of one’s own identity and perspective.
It’s to Gondry’s credit that his philosophical ideas never feel like they’re solely guiding his narrative here, which allows Microbe & Gasoline to unravel with an intoxicating unpredictability and humanity that’s often only talked about in these sort of movies. As his talented actors argue, discuss, joke, and play around, Gondry surrounds them with reflective scenarios: the panicked dentist who attempts to house them for a night, the smoke-and-junk-filled home where Theo resides, the plain cleanliness of Daniel’s family home, to name just a few. There’s an urgency in the lead performances and Gondry’s fleet-footed camera that nicely compliments the settings and interactions, which feel at once pulled from memory and spurred from a teeming imagination.
Though their partnership is equal, Theo is a hero of sorts for Daniel, a lively, ingenious creator who doesn’t seem to give much of a care about what people think of him. For Daniel, it’s a way of seeing the world that he must learn through experience and humiliation but for Theo, it’s a way of survival in a home where financial worries and traditionalist mentalities, as well as the common expectation of familial tragedy, are more serious matters. By the end, Theo is damned by his loathing father, but Daniel has found something about himself that changes his reputation, with the school on the whole as well as Lauar (Diane Besnier), the young woman he’s in love with. Gondry shows a clear distinction between how family dynamics change in different fiscal classes, but his fascination chiefly remains with the endless curiosity, fascination, and the unstoppable creative force that can save you when you’re young, and keep you young when age no longer can.