Michel Gondry is not exactly a director well known for grounding his films in reality, which is precisely why films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind hold such a special place in a lot of people’s film collections: Gondry is weird, and he does weird well. That’s why Microbe and Gasoline feels like such a departure for him. Gondry is no less in touch with innately human experiences here than he is with any of his other work, but Microbe and Gasoline is a relatively standard take on the coming-of-age story, albeit with some Gondry-esque quirks around the edges and lurking in the background. What results is by no means a bad film, just one that feels odd due to its mundanity, as paradoxical as that sounds.
Daniel, dubbed “Microbe” by his classmates for being small and generally non-confrontational, is a teenager struggling through the anxieties of puberty while living with parents so absorbed in their own anxieties that he does not receive the attention he needs or deserves. Enter the new kid, Theo, who receives the nickname “Gasoline” because he comes to school every day after working on engines and thus smells of motor oil and gas. Because both are considered oddball outcasts by the rest of the school—Daniel for his quiet demureness and Theo for his inability to keep his mouth shut—they become fast friends and begin forming plans to build a go-cart and travel across the French countryside together.
The first act tends to drag on for what feels like an eternity, mainly because for the first 45 minutes or so the film doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from any other coming-of-age story. As fun as their witty repartee can be, it’s painfully obvious from the outset that Daniel is going to learn self-confidence from Theo and that Theo is going to tone his reckless nature down from Daniel’s example, so the amount of time setting up their friendship starts to feel tedious for how long it lasts.
However, once the two decide to build their cart and have the novel idea of avoiding police detection by building it to resemble a tiny house, the second act really picks up steam and makes the characters endearing. The banter and levity between the two teenage leads feels naturally juvenile, like really watching a couple of clueless kids venture off into the world to escape their neglectful homes. Their bizarre adventures include an overnight stay at a child-obsessed dentist’s house, a trip to a combination hairstylist and erotic massage parlor, and a low-speed chase away from an army of football players. These stretches hint at the weird auteur that we all know and love, but the film starts to derail around the end of the second act when things alternate between a return to mundanity and oddity for oddity’s sake.
To use a bit of screenwriter’s lingo, Microbe and Gasoline is overly reliant on the charm of its “fun and games” portion, or the part of the film that demonstrates the conceptual conceit of the narrative. It is an entirely functional film as a whole, yet it’s paced in such a way that the “fun and games” portion of the screenplay comes too late and then fizzles out in a way that feels unsatisfying. Gondry has written a couple of very likable kid characters that make the film endearing and fun in those moments when Gondry’s freak flag is allowed to wave proudly, but his desire to fit that strangeness into the mold of a conventional coming-of-age narrative is misguided. Play with the strange a bit more, Mr. Gondry. It’s what you’re good at.