“Lilya 4-Kids” is perhaps a more appropriate title for French stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette, released in both English-dubbed and original versions, which isn’t so much frank and honest as it is staggeringly misjudged.
Nine-year-old Icare, aka Courgette, lives with his abusive alcoholic mother but not for long, as in an effort to fend off a beating Courgette accidentally knocks her down the stairs and it kills her. Where are the Minions my kids love, you ask? I personally think (and I’m sure others agree) that the Minions and their all-encompassing brand are a blight on children’s cinema, but, oh boy, they somewhat resemble the highs of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs & Broomsticks compared to this. Anyway, after accidentally bumping off his mum, Courgette is sent to a children’s home, Fontaine’s, by a kindly police officer whom he forms a friendship with. Once there, he meets a ragtag bunch of fellow orphans who’ve either been sexually abused, raised by thieves or, in the case of the other new arrival, Camille, ended up in the care of an abusive aunt after dad shot mum.
I should make it clear that I have no issue with kids’ films tackling difficult subjects, when done right, such as the infamous stampede sequence in The Lion King and the consequential theme of dealing with a parent’s death, I think having a children’s film deal with a difficult topic is extremely commendable, especially when so many these days rely on toilet humour or animals singing pop songs. My Life As A Courgette opts for a far more blunt, straightforward approach, which for me ends up coming off as horribly misguided. Kids talk about “foreplay”, Camille is an ace at shooting on a fairground stall game because her dad taught her how to shoot… with the very gun he shot her mother. You get the picture.
The main problem for me is not so much that element, especially as we’re in an age where kids’ films are saturated the cheapest humour, because while this subverts that and tries something different (as I’ve said, that’s to be applauded), my problem is how is goes about achieving this. It feels wrong to watch stop-motion children demonstrate orgasm noises (seriously) and walk around an apartment full of their mum’s empty beer cans as she shouts at the TV. Throughout I was reminded of the Danish CGI film Terkel In Trouble, about a young boy who causes trouble for his dysfunctional family. That film, in the words of the BBFC (who’ve given Courgette a PG by the way – so expect complaints) contains “strong violence, language and solvent abuse”, yet I’d rather sit a ten-year-old down in front of that rather than Courgette – at least Terkel doesn’t make you so uncomfortable every few minutes.
Then there’s the fact that Courgette sometimes feel as if it’s almost, well, trivialising child abuse. The film is so pervasively centred around themes of child neglect, sexual abuse, etc, that they become the bedrock of its intended entertainment value. The film’s climactic denouement hinges on whether or a certain adult character will be exposed as abusive or not. Again, dealing with these themes in family films is fine, so long as they’re handled sensitively. But this isn’t sensitive. It tries hard but uses such difficult themes for entertainment that it ends up feeling like writer Celine Sciamma (also behind the far better live-action coming-of-age drama Girlhood) was conflicted between holding back and going all-out, unfortunately more often than not leaning towards the latter, making Courgette an occasionally uncomfortable and tonally bizarre viewing experience.
Review by Scott Bates