Overview: Fed up with the frustrations of school, home, and crappy punk rock bands, a pair of friends build a very strange car and, just, drive away. Screen Media Films; 2016; Rated R; 105 minutes.

Feels on Wheels: Microbe & Gasoline is a film built around an image almost dangerously fragile: two lonely, put-upon fourteen year old boys riding around the rural hills of France in a motorized garden shed. Executed imperfectly, it’s a conceit that could have completely sunk any connection to these characters as something other than caffeinated stand-ins for the indomitability of the human spirit yada yada yada. Director Michel Gondry’s CV, one alarmingly top-heavy with indigestible chunks of quirk like Mood Indigo, would seem to suggest that he’d be a poor man for the job of taming this fantastical concept into something relatable. It’s shocking, then, that he does exactly that: expertly putting the film through the paces of a standard coming-of-age joint even as he readies the audience for their eventual, knee-high submersion into whimsy.

Therefore, Microbe & Gasoline is easily split into two parts: “Necessary evil”, “HOLY SHIT YES!!!”. The only real surprise to come out of the first, been-there done-that section is that our lead characters names are not, in fact, Microbe and Gasoline; rather, they are Daniel and Theo. The title names are the dread invention of the film’s bully character, Steve, referencing Daniel and Theo’s respective small size and grease-monkey odor. While Daniel has a few friends—mostly girls—who, at best, ignore him, Theo is your classic new-kid pariah from the second he walks into the wrong classroom and, uh-duh, sits down in the empty seat next to Daniel. As is their wont, these two teenage outcasts grow as thick as thieves, soon conspiring to ditch the jerk brothers, teasing girls, and scalding fathers that define the lonely time they spend without each other.

This is where the aforementioned house-on-wheels comes in, and as Microbe & Gasoline starts to alternate snatches of Daniel and Theo’s turgid reality with scenes of them working on the contraption together, you begin to sense the filmmaker behind it all spreading his wings. Gondry’s a guy whose entire brand could be summed up as “big-things scaled-down, adorably,” and delight he does in the construction process of this rather clearly symbolic vehicle. But that’s nothing compared to sheer whirlwind of joy that ensues once Daniel and Theo hit the roads. While their journey might be a tad manic in its episodicity to really hit all the beats it should–DEAR GOD THE EPISODES!!–if there’s a theme or mood that links these hilariously irreverent comic set-pieces, which range from a misjudged stop at an barbershop/whorehouse to an escape from the clutches of tragically lonely dentist, it’s the sort of slow, encroaching terror that’s a staple (in cinema and, uh, life) of escalating teenage in-over-our-headsdom. While this stuff may scan as eye-roll worthy when considered out-of-context, the realist groundwork Gondry laid in those early scenes does ably carry the weight of the subsequent fantasy. In that sense, Microbe & Gasoline is the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople wishes it was.

Overall: Like the odyssey its characters embark upon, Microbe & Gasoline is a superlative summer diversion. And if it occasionally reaches a little higher than it has any right to, that’s okay.

Grade: B

Featured Image: Screen Media Films