Fittingly, it’s adolescence—that most liminal of ages, when the existential pressures of adulthood encroach upon the boundless imagination of a child—that pulls Michel Gondry back down to Earth. After slathering on the magical realism in Mood Indigo, he’s back to exploring more grounded human emotion in unconventional ways. But with Microbe & Gasoline, he doesn’t tap into the dreamlike manifestations of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Science of Sleep, either. Gondry’s latest film sets off with an intrepid sense of adventure that never quite raises the stakes much beyond that of mere child’s play.

Microbe & Gasoline pulls its title from the unflattering nicknames thrust upon its two protagonists. Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a floppy-haired, slightly-built late bloomer who, much to his chagrin, is frequently mistaken for a girl. Théo (Théophile Baquet) is the new kid, one who has a cool motorbike and penchant for gadgetry. But the grime under his fingernails and smell of fuel from his dad’s auto shop shoehorn him into the schoolyard role of quirky outsider. The two misfits begin spending more time together, with Théo being the only person to attend Daniel’s art exhibit. The talented Daniel’s drawing skills are put to more use in the form of the elaborate sketches of lascivious naked women he stashes under his mattress in order to hide them from his mother (an under-utilized Audrey Tautou). After the duo gain possession of an old motor, it is Théo who ultimately comes up with the idea that they should build a car and ride around the countryside together.

To avoid the police and other adults who may not look too kindly upon two children driving around in a ramshackle, the boys come up with an ingenious idea: they’ll make the outside of the vehicle look like a tiny house. This adds a touch more whimsy to Gondry’s film, especially as they boys routinely pull their car to the shoulder and drop wooden flaps over the vehicle’s tires just in time for another car to pass them by (or, in one case, make for a good selfie opportunity for an oblivious passing cop). Daniel and Théo talk about life as they make their way through the countryside, and it’s in these tender moments that Microbe & Gasoline is at its poignant best. After all, the stakes are never all that high in this one, even as their makeshift vehicle ends up increasingly worse for wear.

Microbe & Gasoline could’ve easily gotten bogged down in the saccharine or taken a left turn into darker territory, but Gondry keeps his film moving at a steady clip and offers a pleasant (if slight) view into a memorable, coming-of-age summer for these two young men. Other than a few oddly placed detours into minor strangeness in its third act, the film keeps its feet on the ground and doesn’t hinge on Gondry’s fabulist flourishes. Microbe & Gasoline offers a fun little ride, even if its charms won’t linger for very long in your rear-view.

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