Theophile Baquet, Ange Dargent in Microbe & Gasoline

No one in his right mind would accuse a filmmaker of having too much imagination, but French filmmaker Michel Gondry has so much that his flights of fancy can overwhelm his movies. When I think of Gondry, I often remember that dream sequence in The Science of Sleep (2006) in which Gael García Bernal gropes around with giant papier-mache hands—the director has an enormous hunger for ideas, but sometimes he can’t pick anything up. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is still his best film, because Charlie Kaufman’s cerebral screenplay about a company that launders people’s memories was also emotionally centered in a romantic love triangle. As a writer-director on Sleep and Be Kind Rewind (2008), Gondry had trouble summoning the kind of honest emotion needed to counterbalance his surreal visions. His best moment since Sunshine was probably a documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013), which pairs a Noam Chomsky interview with hand-drawn animation and touches unexpectedly and powerfully on the public intellectual’s private grief over the death of his wife.

More recently Gondry has enlisted other people to help write his features, but Microbe & Gasoline, his third solo writing effort, is an unexpectedly rich story about two grade school pals hitting the road in a fantastical jerry-built automobile. It’s the kind of thing you might see on the Disney Channel, except that it has way too much wit and irreverence and one of its young heroes likes to draw men and women copulating. Gondry has gotten his hands on a fine and slippery subject—the way boys on the cusp of adolescence reason about women and sex—and his portrayal of the heroes’ Tom-and-Huck relationship rings true. For the first time in one of his own stories, the people don’t take a backseat to the concepts.

“I like to make things with garbage,” Gondry once told MTV, and both the timid, diminutive Microbe (Ange Dargent) and the cocksure Gasoline (Theophile Baquet) share a love of junk. They meet in the schoolyard when Gasoline, a new student, rolls in on his bicycle with an assortment of comedy sound-effect boxes mounted to the handlebars. Before long he and Microbe are prowling around the antique shop run by Gasoline’s father and the scrapyards where Gasoline likes to pick up mechanical odds and ends. The car they construct is a classic Gondry, a contraption that grows more elaborate as they go along: they acquire a motor for a sit-down lawnmower, mount it to an iron bed frame, install a steering column, transmission, and a pair of seats, and mount a discarded car hood to the front and a section of a wooden dresser to the back. Eventually they decide to set off on a cross-country expedition and use discarded lumber to construct a little shed over the car, turning it into a little motor home. When they see police approaching, they pull off to the side of the road and lower a set of flaps they’ve installed to hide the wheels. I don’t guess a contraption like this would actually run, but it’s sure great to look at.

Gondry has reached into himself for this dead-on portrayal of how prepubescent boys reason about love, women, and sex. When Microbe asks Gasoline if he’s ever done it, his friend replies, “I gave up after a sad story. Too many emotional complications get in the way.” Later in the film, when they’re set off on their journey, they make a side trip so that Microbe can profess his love to a girl he knows. “It’s a noble, beautiful kind of pain,” he tells Gasoline. They both have complicated relationships with their mothers: Gasoline’s mom, who suffers from obesity and has survived two heart attacks, lets him run wild, whereas Microbe is smothered by his adoring mom (Audrey Tautou). “[She] loves me too much,” he tells Gasoline. “I feel sorry for her.”

Gondry has taken a lovely snapshot of children at the age when they’re first confronted with sexuality and recoil in fear, disguising it as disgust. When Microbe and his brother listen to their parents arguing in the next room, Microbe comments, “At least they’re not screwing. The idea grosses me out.” After finding the explicit drawings under Microbe’s mattress, his mother assures him, “It’s normal to masturbate at your age!” He clamps his hands over his ears and runs away. “I promise not to talk about your sexuality!” she calls after him. Gondry puts his finger on the girls as well as the boys. “They’re all so immature,” says one female student of her male classmates. But in the final shot of the movie, a girl who’s hovered on the periphery of the action stares after Microbe as he walks away, wishing he would turn around and look at her. He will someday, and it’ll be the same day he stops building motor homes out of junk.

Microbe & Gasoline opens Friday at Music Box Theatre.