Befitting a film where every frame is lovingly analyzed and arranged, My Life As a Zucchini is bursting with unspoken detail. The facial expressions are subtle and seamless. Several of the children have scars on their faces, scars that the camera never lingers on. They're just a part of the kids' history. The art style, initially alien with Zucchini's Play-doh hair and oversize eyes, eventually becomes immersive with the aid of Sciamma's naturalistic writing. One of the kids still sucks their thumb because of course they do. At only 66 minutes long, Barras and Sciamma choose not to stuff the film with incident but instead add as much endearing nuance as they can. It matters less what's happening than who it's happening to.
Fittingly for the subject matter, of course some of that nuance and detail is piercingly sad. The film puts the brutality and indifference of the world on the kid characters' shoulders. Abuse, dependence, the crushing power of the state, unvarnished malevolence, these children have borne the brunt of it. Barras and Sciamma are frank about what some of the kids have gone through, and what's most depressing about the aftermath is their diminished level of trust in the parental bond. The signature frame of the film catches the class on a winter field trip, observing a mother kiss her son's boo-boo. Barras holds his camera a few precious seconds longer than expected, as the kids stand there, quietly envious and possibly wondering what the parented kid did to deserve such warmth and they did to deserve the opposite.
Against this pain is happiness that demands to escape and be expressed, no matter what. These kids are still young enough to where they can lose themselves in un-self-conscious play, something Barras and Sciamma use to leaven the cumulative portions of injustice that My Life As a Zucchini also contains. The staff at the orphanage works hard to provide them with release valves and distractions, like the aforementioned field trip, and the kids oblige their work by taking the opportunity to dance like idiots. This is a film that earns its emotions, whether they're gloomy or ecstatic. Zucchini talks about his life with his mother as one of solitude and irritability and uncertainty, but she also made great mashed potatoes, and she liked to fly kites with him. The dial might have been turned more towards the bad, but it occasionally flashed on the good. My Life As a Zucchini exists in that space, where no matter how terrible things have been going, a steaming, buttery pile of mashed potatoes could be on the schedule for dinner. A-