A French 66-minute stop-motion animation about children in an orphanage, My Life as a Courgette is an unexpected delight. Claude Barras’ film arrives here on a wave of awards success, including Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. It lost out on both to Zootropolis, whose expansive spectacle it feels far removed from.
With UK distributor Soda releasing both the subtitled, French-voiced original and the English dub, the choice is yours; both versions do the story justice. In the English version, Erick Abbate voices ‘Courgette’, a blue-haired, wide-eyed youngster living alone with his mother (who gave him that cute nickname) in a home littered with empty beer cans. Animated or not, there are few sadder sights than watching a child clear up after their alcoholic parent.
When Courgette drops some of the discarded tins, his furious ma storms up to his attic room. He accidentally shuts the trapdoor on her and… well, we never see what happens. “I’m here because I think I killed my Mum,” Courgette later tells Simon (Romy Beckman), his friend at the rural orphanage where he ends up.
If that misplaced guilt is heartbreaking, it’s no worse than some of the other stories these kids carry around with them: we learn of parents who are drug addicts, criminals or mentally ill. One was deported. Another is a paedophile. “We’re all the same – there’s no one left to love us,” concludes Simon, in yet another moment of intense sadness.
Adapting from Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette, Barras and his team made the wise decision to bring Céline Sciamma on board as screenwriter. Her live-action films as director (Girlhood, Water Lilies, Tomboy) have all dealt with growing pains, and she brings the same sensitivity to this adaptation.
There are moments of joy, too. Courgette’s friendship with football-loving new girl Camille (Ness Krell), or the kindness shown by Raymond (Nick Offerman), the policeman who first takes him to the orphanage. Everyday beauty is celebrated often, whether it’s a trip to the mountains, touching the belly of pregnant teacher Rosy (Ellen Page), a ghost-train ride or a party where Courgette dresses up like a superhero.
Emotively designed, the stop-motion visuals are marvellous – simple and melancholic, rather like the accompanying music by Sophie Hunger. Quite whether children will take to this story remains to be seen; it deals with some tough themes after all. But Courgette proves that the biggest surprises can come in the smallest of packages.