Until recently, nine-year-old Icare (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) lived with his single mother, his father having left for destinations unknown some time before. The boy liked to be called Courgette, and spent his time drawing or collecting the empty beer cans his mother drank from - she had a problem in that respect, and her drunkenness often led her to beat her son. But one day, when he was building a pyramid of beer cans and they toppled over making a loud crash, she advanced up to his attic room with the intention of hitting him again, and he closed the hatch on her in panic. As a result, she fell and hit her head, then died from her injuries, and Courgette has to live with that terrible memory...
My Life as a Courgette, or Ma vie de Courgette as it was originally known, a Swiss-French production, started life as a book for children, but whether the film was suitable for the very young was more debatable, as it placed itself in the position of telling uncomfortable truths about children in care without any recourse to fantastical elements, which may have the young ones less engaged than the older generations. Nevertheless, should they respond to the immense sympathy it displayed, then presumably the project had achieved what it set out to do, shedding the light of understanding on the small victims of adult thoughtlessness, cruelty or even sheer bad luck that leaves them with nobody to care for them.
Or indeed nobody to love them, and that was an important theme, that the kids at the orphanage Courgette winds up staying in feel abandoned, with some justification because, well, they have been left behind as the world of grown-ups has no place for them right now. There were no real villains among the child characters, they may act up and break the rules but again, director Claude Barras made sure to have the audience in full understanding of what was going on in their heads, thanks to a clever device where one of their number, loudmouth Simon (Paulin Jacoud), makes it his business to find out why every one of the handful of special cases who live there have ended up where they have. The reasons are different, yet curiously similar.
Basically, whether the children have been neglected, abused, abandoned or orphaned, the consequences are always the same: they do not have a parent in their lives to love and look after them. That My Life as a Courgette was a stop motion animation featuring little clay models of sensitive-looking souls could have made it unbearably mawkish and even cutesy, but somehow Barras succeeded in creating an atmosphere that moved beyond the simple impulse to go "Aww" when faced with cartoonish creations, and allow us to perceive what was going on in their oversized heads, and that made a big difference. They were almost comparable to Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts characters in that respect, though while the worst Charlie Brown was landed with was an existential dread that he didn't matter, it was far closer to home for Courgette's new friends.
Not that they are wholly friendly at first, some are defensive and others are aggressive, with every one of them labouring under the fears that they deserved to be forgotten now that they were effectively pushed away into the margins of society when it was clear to them that they were not going to be adopted any time soon thanks to them not being babies or toddlers, who are the preferred infants among couples seeking to take in an abandoned child. Yet again, the restraint Barras arranged this with - no major tantrums, and the film did not build to a crescendo of heart-rending emotion - was surprisingly effective when he could have gone the more obvious route of having the characters express their woes in plain-speaking terms. There is hope for Courgette, not only because he finds love with a girl his own age, Camille (Sixtine Murat), who has been through trauma as bad as any of them, but because we are reminded there are adults who will act out of the kindness of their hearts to help out those who genuinely need it. It sounds simple, but it was deceptively complex, a sad but rather lovely film. Music by Sophie Hunger.