Daniel Guéret (Ange Dargent) is already 14, but he hasn't quite made it through puberty. A slender boy with a small frame, fine features, a long mop of a hairdo, and a falsetto voice, the hero of Microbe & Gasoline, from French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is often mistaken for a girl.
Nicknamed Microbe by his schoolmates, he carries around a lot of shame. He seems to have few friends, and while he fantasizes incessantly about his classmate Laura (Diane Besnier), he's too afraid to ask her out.
Daniel's life changes when he befriends transfer student Théo (Théophile Baquet), a supremely confident nonconformist from a poor family. A gifted mechanic who helps his dad fix engines before school, he shrugs off bullies who taunt him for smelling like gasoline.
Outsiders both, Daniel and Théo are prototypical Gondry heroes. But here the indie auteur forgoes his visual pyrotechnics and experimental narrative style to tell a straightforward and delightful coming-of-age yarn.
The first half is a deftly drawn character study that looks at the two schoolboys' relationships with their families and peers. They bond over their mutual hatred for bourgeois life in the small city of Versailles ("We can't blossom," Théo complains). Dreaming of escape, they spend their free time building a motor home from scratch.
Once summer vacation starts, they run away, with grand plans of taking a road trip across France in their monstrous creation - it's kind of a ramshackle toolshed on wheels powered by a lawn mower engine.
They have great adventures: They're taken in by a creepy dentist who insists on fixing their smiles, and they get into a violent confrontation with a French-Korean street gang.
Dargent and Baquet are terrific, delivering incredibly relaxed performances as two kids with exceptional intelligence and a burning passion for life. And it's clear they're still kids. Filled with misconceptions about life, about sex, and about adulthood, they spend hours giving each other absurd dating advice.
A cross between François Truffaut's sometimes-harrowing dramas about childhood and a Steven Spielberg fantasy, Gondry's film abounds with sentiment - without falling prey to sentimentality.