Apart from both having unfortunate titles, My Life as a Zucchini and Donald Cried share something else. They’re small and incisive movies about the damages we suffer and survive.
Opening today, Zucchini is an animated feature (barely, since it runs just over an hour). And it’s very French, possibly more attuned to adult sensibilities than to those of the elementary school-aged characters. What’s surprising and engaging about it is how human-scaled it is. No talking animals, no gravity-defying superheroes, no snarky pop-culture jokes. It’s a movie that could have been made by Louis Malle or François Truffaut, if they’d been animators. And it rightfully was nominated for an Oscar as best animated feature this year. (Zootopia, with its talking animals and pop-culture jokes, won.)
The nine-year-old boy nicknamed Zucchini (“Courgette” in the original French) lives alone with his bitter, beer-drinking mom who, one afternoon, climbs the steep steps to her son’s room to spank him. And falls to her death. That Zucchini is accidentally responsible for the accident is an early indicator that the movie won’t be steering clear of some of the uglier truths about life.
Interviewed, then driven to a small orphanage by a kindly cop named Raymond, Zucchini finds himself surrounded by kids with problems of their own. Simon is the bully, compensating for his fury at parents whose drug habits landed him there. Ahmed wets his bed. Weary-eyed Alice has the nervous tics and faraway stare of a girl who suffered unspeakable abuse at home. Bea heartbreakingly flings herself out the front door at the sound of any approaching car, convinced it carries her mother, who was deported. Then there’s another newcomer, like Zucchini — Camille, a girl who witnessed her mother’s death at her father’s hands.
So, yes, the movie is dark, but in a nurturing way, if that makes sense. It’s suitable for kids because Zucchini is largely about healing — not in a sticky-sweet way, but by small, slow increments. For all their differences, the kids become one another’s family; they have each others’ backs.
That unity gets tested when Camille’s future is threatened by a hard-edged aunt who wants to remove her from the orphanage, only so she can bank the welfare checks. Meantime, quietly, the kids witness the romance of two of their teachers, who wind up being surrogate parent figures for them all.
With their big heads and exaggerated, ugly-adorable features, the animated kids of Zucchini look like they could be related to the live-action title character in Donald Cried, opening March 17.
He’s played by writer-director Kris Avedisian, who dominates the movie’s frame with a butchered haircut, big glasses and a mouthful of teeth always shining with unfounded optimism. It’s a face that Peter (Jesse Wakeman) can’t get away from for 24 cold, crazy hours.
Returning to his snowy Rhode Island hometown after 20 years away, Peter is there to dispose of his grandmother’s remains and put her house on the market. A Wall Street guy, he’s completely shed his long-haired teen identity as a death metal-head and high school pariah. So it pains him when a lost wallet and a dead car battery force him to turn for help to his best frenemy from back then, Donald.
Still living in his mother’s house, sleeping under a slanted ceiling covered with thrash-rock band posters and a very explicit, up-close centerfold, Donald is thrilled to see his long last pal. He thinks Peter has come all this way just to hang out with him. That’s what he pretends, anyway. As we’re assaulted, like Peter, by Donald’s shifting mix of friendliness and malice, childlike enthusiasm and menacing emotional reversals, we start to wonder who’s really in charge of the situation here. It’s basically a hostage situation as Donald drives Peter around town. The movie constantly makes us shift perspectives as it lurches from comedy to psychodrama.
As we spend more time with Donald, we start to realize there’s real emotional damage there, damage Peter may have contributed to. Even when he acts incredibly inappropriately — getting crazy drunk and barging in while Peter’s trying to get romantic with an old classmate — you feel a little sorry for Donald. As for Peter, you realize his buttoned-up persona is armor against his own younger identity.
Donald Cried isn’t for everybody. You either go with this kind of comedy of discomfort (like Toni Erdmann, or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) or you don’t. But writer-director Avedisian’s commitment to this funny-sad oddball character is impressive. Though the Donald–Peter relationship isn’t homoerotic, exactly, it’s clear that, for Donald, their old, abandoned friendship is probably the most important relationship in his life.
It makes sense that the final scene takes place in the parking lot of a Peter Pan bus depot. Like the crowing boy king of Neverland, both Donald and Peter, in different ways, are still stuck in a past they can never quite outgrow.
My Life as a Zucchini. With the voices of Will Forte, Ellen Page, Nick Offerman in the English-dubbed version. Directed by Claude Barras. 70 minutes. Rated PG-13. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. (Landmark is screening both the English-dubbed and the subtitled, French-language versions of the film.)
Donald Cried. With Kris Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman. Written and directed by Avedisian. Unrated. 85 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. (Opens March 17)