Photo: Screen Media Films

Cutesy title notwithstanding, Microbe And Gasoline stands as one of director Michel Gondry’s most restrained works, even if it is about two middle-school-age misfits taking a road trip in a homemade car disguised as a small house. Powered by a lawnmower engine and equipped with a fold-down facade to hide it from the cops (it’s not exactly “street legal”), this motorized clubhouse is the handiwork of Daniel (Ange Dargent), an artsy runt often mistaken for a girl by grown-ups, and Théo (Théophile Baquet), his handy moped-riding best friend. Viewers old or young enough to remember a time when The Work Of Director Michel Gondry took pride of place on many a dorm room and first apartment shelf will recognize the bits of autobiography split between the two characters, introduced as new classmates in Versailles, the French fantasist’s hometown in the suburbs of Paris.

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But instead of disappearing up an anal canal of self-reference, Gondry’s appealingly low-key coming-of-age movie contents itself with puttering from classroom to countryside, its laid-back charm exemplified by a winsome score by French pop maverick Jean-Claude Vannier, best known for his moody string arrangements on the classic Histoire De Melody Nelson. It takes a good chunk of time for Microbe And Gasoline—titled after its heroes’ schoolyard nicknames—to get around to the boys’ DIY project, and even longer for them to decide to sneak off on an unsanctioned summer trip to the south of France. Scaling back from both the high-concept surrealism of his last film, Mood Indigo, and the freewheeling experimentation of his previous foray into teen drama, The We And The I, Gondry offers up his take on the long-running European tradition of unambitious, naturalistic coming-of-age portraiture.

Though it takes place in the present, Microbe And Gasoline could just as easily be set in Gondry’s mid-to-late-1970s teen years, with its fascination with punk and absence of most things digital. (Conveniently, Daniel is forced to ditch his iPhone in the first hours of the road trip.) Simplicity seems to be the order of the day: The plotting makes Richard Linklater’s hangout movies seem urgent by comparison; the director’s usual surreal touches are few and far between; and the camera work sticks to pans that move only as quickly as the characters. Microbe And Gasoline’s two eminently likable and believable leads—one shy to the point of silence, the other prone to saying things like “Alcohol is the death of dignity” with an air that only sounds authoritative to other eighth graders—carry the movie from one deliberately anti-climactic episode to another. So does its wry sense of humor.

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The unexpected death of a parent late in the movie finds Gondry acknowledging that there are confrontations that can’t be averted. But up until then, Microbe And Gasoline moves at an unhurried pace, punctuated by candid moments distinct enough to seem completely personal (say, Daniel jerking off to one of his own drawings), sketching out a picture of early teenhood less focused on heartbreak and big dreams than on slow walks home after school with nothing to do.