Very few children’s films are explicitly about the experience of being a child, nor are they often about the kinds of traumatic and sensitive topics that a mainstream audience would rather not expose their children to–or would rather not have a conversation with their children about, take your pick. My Life as a Zucchini is a remarkable film in its willingness to explore themes of trauma, growth, community and healing in a manner that is decidedly kid-friendly without pandering to children’s assumed unintelligence or inability to grasp complicated issues. And for that, it is, quite frankly, an amazing feat.
Nine-year-old Zucchini spends his days alone in his room as his alcoholic mother spends hers in an enraged stupor in front of the television. One day, Zucchini accidentally kills his mother in self-defense, and he is sent off to an orphanage. Each of the children there has their own tragic background, but only Simon, the oldest of the group, takes it upon himself to be, at once, needlessly cruel and a mentor to his younger companions. Zucchini eventually settles in amongst the chaos of his newly-upended life, soon finding a connection with the orphanage’s newest addition, the lovely Camille.
Running at a scant 66 minutes, My Life as a Zucchini manages to pack a lot into its small package. It is at once a bittersweet and melancholic story of growing up in tragic circumstances, but it is also a tale of adaptability and hope, as these kids are trying to grow up and find happiness while dealing with issues that most adults cannot without great difficulty. And while each child has their own distinct personality, they’re also inconsistent in their moods in a way that reflects the difficulty of their circumstances and their constantly evolving conception of the world. Plot isn’t a central focus of Zucchini’s journey, but that doesn’t make him or his compatriots any less engaging to watch grow and change.
The animation style of My Life as a Zucchini is a masterwork of stop-motion—an art form that is slowly dying in mainstream animation—and a loving ode to the creativity of a child. Zucchini is constantly coloring and creating, and the world he inhabits seems to be built of the very materials that he himself might use. People are out of proportion in their own shapes and out of scale with the cars they drive and buildings they inhabit. But all of this exists through the eyes of a child, and the hand-built nature of the film invests the experience with a perpetual pre-adolescent wonder. It’s not as impressive as something like, say, Kubo and the Two Strings, but the effort is apparent, and the end result is mystifying.
When My Life as a Zucchini was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, I initially shrugged it off as an attempt by animation aficionados to give a shout out to the efforts of overseas colleagues. And while that may have been true with The Red Turtle, My Life as a Zucchini is a modern classic in its own right, a touching examination of the struggles of youth in extreme circumstances. As sad as that may sound, you may be surprised at just how hopeful you are once the credits start to roll.