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In Microbe and Gasoline, two boys find freedom in their imagination and independent spirit as they go on a road trip across France in a vehicle they make themselves. Through the creation of their vehicle and their trip away from family and classmates, they discover the glory that such freedom can give them, allowing them to discover who they truly are.

For writer and director Michel Gondry, complete freedom hasn’t always been best for his creative impulses. Often his imagination can overwhelm his projects, such as 2013’s Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep, which can feel more like Gondry’s personal art projects than actual films. For example, Gondry’s directorial masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind works because his quirky sensibilities are counteracted with the dark script by Charlie Kaufman. With Microbe and Gasoline, however, Gondry’s idiosyncratic ways don’t overtake the project, instead creating one of Gondry’s most balanced and complete projects in years that still feels distinctly like his own.

At the center of Microbe and Gasoline are Daniel (Ange Dargent), a talented young artist whose small size has earned him the name Microbe, and Théo (Théophile Baquet), a new arrival at Daniel’s school whose motorcycle-fume smell has quickly given him the nickname Gasoline. After quickly becoming friends, Microbe and Gasoline decide to make their own car across France to escape the people in their lives that frustrate them daily. Microbe designs the car – which looks like a house to avoid getting the proper permits for the road – and Gasoline creates the mobile home and the two leave on their journey.

In past films, Gondry would’ve had the kids make the vehicle as whimsical and wild as he possibly could, but here it is reigned in, as it seeps out occasionally through their creativity. Microbe and Gasoline surprisingly never feels like Gondry peeking out and making sure his fingerprint is on the film, but instead the two boy’s little intricacies play right to what we know about them. Even when the car is finished – complete with flowers outside a window to solidify the illusion – it never feels over-the-top or silly in the way Gondry’s films can often become.

Microbe and Gasoline takes quite a while to get going, as Gondry sets up the home lives of his heroes thoroughly, explaining why exactly they would want to escape. The road trip starts off with promise, as they interact with cops, dentists, and barbers/brothels, but too often falls onto exhausted tropes. The third act of course involves a disagreement that could be easily solved (their mode of transportation undergoes some problems). But Dargent and Baquet are charming from beginning to end, even when the road trip takes unforeseen and seen-too-often detours.

Microbe and Gasoline surely seems like Gondry finding his solo stride, as his DIY approach is naturalistic and not overbearing in the slightest, and is a personal film as well. Microbe and Gasoline plays like a wonderful summer that Gondry had, which he wanted to present in all its glory, albeit likely overblown from the truth. Instead of gimmicks and quick, Microbe and Gasoline finds is strength in the simple ideas that Gondry’s films have never lacked: love, friendship, and the bonds we create through the adventures life throws in our way. In those most basic ideas, Gondry has found what works for him, without all the usual twee frills.