French director Michel Gondry is, at least sometimes, his own worst enemy. Ever since graduating from music videos to feature films with the Charlie Kaufman-scripted “Human Nature” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” he’s been strongly identified with a certain twee, handmade aesthetic.
And yet, when he’s given full reign to these cellophane-and-balsa-wood constructions, the results have been uneven, to say the least. “Be Kind Rewind,” “The Science of Sleep,” and even the obligatory, misbegotten Hollywood foray “The Green Hornet” each had their moments, but Gondry’s penchant for whimsical production design and cheeky conceits feels crepe-paper thin without the intellectual penetration that Kaufman brings to the table.
You get the sense that the filmmaker himself realizes this—every ambitious, underwhelming effort is followed by a smaller-scale, more personal-feeling project. An inventive portrait of Gondry’s own family (“The Thorn in the Heart”), an animated interview with linguist Noam Chomsky (“Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”), and a collectively made docudrama about New York City teens on a bus (“The We and the I”) have each served as palate-cleansers.
Now, following the international flop of 2013’s “Mood Indigo,” comes the charming boys’ adventure “Microbe & Gasoline.” The title is almost misleading in its eccentricity, since this story about teenage pals running away from home together is a pretty straightforward coming-of-age tale. High schooler Daniel (Ange Dargent) is nicknamed “Microbe” for his small stature and baby face. New kid in town Theo (Théophile Baquet) likes to tinker with engines, hence “Gasoline.”
The two become fast friends, a typical pair of perfectly mismatched outsiders: Daniel’s paintings of his brother’s punk rock friends earns him the sobriquet “Gouache Rock” from Theo, which is a pretty clever pun if you think about it. Theo’s antique dealer dad is mean; Daniel’s mom (Audrey Tautou) is overprotective. The boys at school are jerks, and the girls at school are non-responsive, with the possible exception of the elegant Laura (Diane Besnier).
So the boys decide to depart Paris and their miserable lives, and to do so they build a tiny car out of material salvaged from a junkyard. Ah, you think, this is where Gondry’s bricolage mania takes over and spoils a perfectly pleasant Tom & Huck story. But, while fanciful, the mini-RV isn’t excessively so. There’s an old-fashioned feel to the road trip, including an almost ritualistic disposal of the iPhone that’s the pair’s only link to home.
Encounters with oddball characters (most memorably in an Asian massage parlor/barbershop), evasions of law enforcement (the vehicle can disguise itself as a humble roadside shack quite easily), and tests of friendship ensue. “Microbe & Gasoline” may not have the ambition of some of Gondry’s other films, but it has more genuine heart and charm than most of them.
(104 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, July 22, at Living Room Theaters)