Charming, melancholy, and, in the end, not terribly memorable, “Microbe & Gasoline” shows the gifted filmmaking eccentric Michel Gondry pulling back to more personal territory.
Gondry came out of advertising and music videos at the turn of the millennium to make a series of wonderful mid-budget whimsies: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004, from a Charlie Kaufman script), “The Science of Sleep” (2006), and “Be Kind Rewind” (2008). He foundered with a superhero parody (”The Green Hornet,” 2011), made a few documentaries, and adapted a French cult novel that was ruinously edited down before it crossed the Atlantic as “Mood Indigo” (2013).
He has seemed a little lost lately, which maybe is why “Microbe & Gasoline” feels closer to the bone. The story of two adolescent best friends — middle-school misfits with fractured home lives who hit the road in a jerry-built car — the film feels similar in wistful tone and quietly rebellious spirit to Gondry’s 1998 short “La Lettre” (available on YouTube if you’re curious). Both movies center on sensitive, lovelorn heroes and their brasher brothers or friends; both scratch their heads at the mysteries of women.
The strength of the new film is in the performances of Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet as the buddies of the title. Daniel (Dargent), tauntingly nicknamed “Microbe” for his small stature, is a talented artist and a nervous wreck, gnawing over agonies sexual, romantic, and existential. (Oh, to be 14 and a half.) Theo (Baquet) is the new kid in class, extroverted and funny but odd enough to be shunned by the cool kids, who dub him “Gasoline” for the auto grease on his hands.
Gasoline’s parents are louts, and Microbe’s mom (Audrey Tautou, of “Amelie,” in a smallish role) is a sad sack and a hoverer — she tries to give her son advice on masturbation, which goes about as well as you can imagine. After a while the two friends just say the hell with it and head out of Paris in a vehicle that Gasoline has made from a lawn mower engine, four wheels, and a garden shed. It looks like a mobile version of Henry David Thoreau’s shack in “Walden.”
The car is the only outward sign we’re in a Michel Gondry movie — well, that and the doubt — and it lacks the sheer Rube Goldberg nuttiness of the contraptions in “The Science of Sleep,” “Be Kind Rewind” and “Mood Indigo.” The boys’ adventures are winning but small-scale, almost funnier in description than in the playing: a run-in with an overeager dentist, a bit where the girlish Microbe decides to get his hair cut and wanders into a Korean massage parlor. For all his playfulness, Gondry remains fascinated with entropy, and “Microbe and Gasoline” is less about the end of the journey than about the many ways to not get there.
Still, the movie shouldn’t be undersold, and the scenes in which the two friends simply talk, bucking each other up or trying to solve the puzzle of adulthood, are the heart of the thing. The comedy of “Microbe and Gasoline” masks a sadness that Francois Truffaut might recognize, as would the two young leads of Ira Sachs’s upcoming New York drama, “Little Men,” opening next month. “You’ve grown,” Microbe’s mother says late in the going. “No, everything else has shrunk,” he responds, and in the final satisfying frames we see a boy who has learned to never look back. Maybe his creator will now be able to do the same.
MICROBE & GASOLINE
Written and directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Ange Dargent, Théophile Baquet, Audrey Tautou. At Kendall Square. 105 minutes. R (sex-related material involving young teens). In French, with subtitles.