Theo and Daniel enjoy a snack in Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline
Theo and Daniel enjoy a snack in Michel Gondry’s Microbe and Gasoline

Generally, things are just a little bit off-kilter in the world of Michel Gondry. From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Be Kind Rewind (and with the notable exception of his 2012 feature, the comparatively neo-realistic The We and the I), the French filmmaker has displayed a penchant for telling stories with a slightly surreal bent.

Gondry’s latest feature brings us firmly back to his magical-realist comfort zone. Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil), a whimsical shaggy dog tale about two teenage outcasts and a remarkable road trip, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 15.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is 14 years old but looks two or three years younger. Nicknamed Microbe by schoolyard bullies, the quiet, artistically talented youngster has a (presumably doomed) crush on classmate Laura (Diane Besnier).

Theo (Théophile Baquet) is new to Daniel’s school, and shows up for the first day of term riding a motorized scooter with a homemade sound system. Immediately dubbed Gasoline, Theo makes common cause with fellow nerd Daniel, and the new friends hatch a wild plan to travel across France during the summer months in a bespoke automobile.

Their plan must, of course, remain a secret if it is to succeed. Daniel’s mother Marie-Thérèse (Audrey Tautou), an unsmiling vegetarian God-botherer who drags her son to seminars on mysticism, is left in the dark, as are Theo’s grumpy, unhappy parents.

One montage sequence later, the boys have deftly assembled a functioning vehicle from a small engine, some plywood, and a few others odds and ends. Only capable of traversing back roads, their ‘car’ is skillfully disguised as a tiny house (complete with flower boxes) which will serve as a night time resting place while being overlooked by incurious traffic cops.

Summer time arrives, and the boys hit the highway for Theo’s childhood campgrounds, where he hopes for a happy reunion with a beloved counselor. Unbeknownst to him, however, Daniel has put his own secret plan into effect: to visit the beach where Laura spends the summer holidays with her family.

If you can imagine an adult ‘Afterschool Special’, Microbe and Gasoline might be it. Theo and Daniel are normal — not idealized — teens, and while the film probably would have been rated PG (or GP!) in the 1970s, our 21st-century MPAA has in its wisdom bestowed it with an ‘R’ for “sex-related material involving young teens”. Though there’s no actual sex on screen, there are a few frank discussions about the birds and the bees.

Daniel and Theo reflect Gondry’s apparent discomfort with the trappings of modern technology. Both boys seem distinctly retro and analog in their interests; using neither computers nor (with one exception) cell phones. The exception involves a phone literally being buried beneath human excrement.

There’s even a little bit of political commentary in Microbe and Gasoline, as Daniel berates Theo for crying over a lost jacket after they witness the destruction of a Roma camp by the police. It’s a brief acknowledgment of cruel reality in a film that otherwise hovers airily between this world and another, nearly parallel but vaguely dissimilar, one.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...