“Microbe and Gasoline” bears one of the hallmarks of a Michel Gondry film — a fiercely independent D.I.Y. streak — without another of the French director’s more annoying quirks: a self-consciously twee sensibility.
Although the semi-autobiographical film centers on a pair of 14-year-old misfits who embark on an unauthorized road trip in a homemade jalopy with a lawn-mower engine disguised as a tiny wooden house, its true theme is not the sometimes overly strenuous oddness of the title characters. It’s their very ordinary — and quietly touching — relationship. “Microbe and Gasoline” is one of most heartfelt and simple films in years to come from the director of “Be Kind Rewind” and “The Green Hornet.”
In the town of Versailles, Daniel, a.k.a. Microbe (Ange Dargent), a small-for-his-age and artistically talented eighth-grader, becomes best friends with Théo, a.k.a. Gasoline, (Théophile Baquet), a self-confident grease monkey and natural Mr. Fixit, after Théo transfers to Daniel’s school. It’s an ecosystem in which neither of the boys is able to find his place; the unathletic Daniel paints and draws all day, while Théo tinkers with motors and other machines in his home garage, using parts scavenged from junkyards and the streets. Over summer vacation, the two decide to run away in the aforementioned car, which transforms, with the flip of a handle, into a stationary architectural structure the size and appearance of a garden shed, whenever police pass. It also doubles as a cozy camper at night, mostly because they forgot to add headlights.
Oh well. You can’t think of everything, especially at 14.
The premise certainly sounds farfetched enough to rub some viewers the wrong way. But writer-director Gondry — who has said in interviews that the character of Daniel is loosely based on him — keeps a tight rein on the off-the-wall quality of the story, even when it wobbles into a pit stop in which Daniel finds himself getting an unfortunate haircut from Korean prostitutes in a massage parlor, and then running afoul of the unscrupulous proprietor.
Somehow, the filmmaker makes all this seem palatable, if less than entirely plausible at times.
Much of this is due to the film’s young stars, whose performances have an unforced naturalness and relatability, even under the most outlandish circumstances. Dargent and Baquet seem very much like — and, in fact, are — real teenagers, rather than 20-somethings masquerading as children, as is so often the case in Hollywood. Diane Besnier, as Daniel’s somewhat aloof crush, is also good in her small role.
Although set in the present, Daniel and Théo don’t use cellphones or the Internet; they prefer to find their way with paper maps, not apps. This is actually the weirdest thing about the film, while simultaneously being the source of its greatest charm. Gondry has spoken of setting the film in the present to save money, but “Microbe and Gasoline” is very much a film from and about the past.
That’s because it’s in love with love and friendship and the act of creation — both of mechanical devices and the self. “Microbe and Gasoline” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it just might ride four of them into your heart.