Full disclosure: what I actually watched was Ma Vie de Courgette, the European Film Awards' Best Animated Feature of 2016, winner of Swiss Film Awards and a couple of Césars. The English-language version (make sure you know which you're in for!) boasts the voice-acting skills of Nick Offerman and Ellen Paige, so must be pretty great – but in both its original music and its frankness, this is perhaps a peculiarly European look at how traumatic childhood can be, at children's desire for community and their capacity to bounce back.
In this post-Inside Out world, parents have to be prepared for animated films to cover more emotionally complex territory, making their age ratings guidelines ever more important. Here's my shot at combining a synopsis with cod-BBFC guidelines: young Icare hides away from an alcoholic mother, and when he is eventually taken to a care home, all he retains from her is his nickname, 'Courgette'. The home turns out to be a loving place, though alpha-inmate Simon doesn't make the transition easy. Kindly policeman Raymond stays in touch with Icare, who also immediately warms to new girl Camille. There are references to the crimes and deaths of these kids' parents, but in a wholly unsensationalistic way. We get the sense that the filmmakers have been influenced by a 9-year-old's eye view in terms of how screenwriter Céline Sciamma has filtered concepts like abuse and sexuality through a child's understanding, and how the style of director Claude Barras' amazing claymation (huge heads, elongated arms, bright primary colours) stays true to Icare's drawings of events.
So it's shown through the young Courgette's eyes – and what big eyes they are. The characterisation is wonderfully achieved, through the nervous tics of one girl; the multidimensionality of the bully; warm gestures from the carers; Camille's glassy candidness when speaking about her relatives. The moments Ma Vie becomes more cartoonish (a skiing mishap, watching an aloof squirrel) are nice instances of airy relief, but overall it's quite remarkable how this is an adult film and a children's film at once which should be great for inter-generational conversations. Even the soundtrack contributes, as Sophie Hunger's fairground- and post-punk-inflected pieces go straight past cutesy to evoke the kaleidoscopic ontological instability that is childhood.
On a plasticine journey from darkness to light, Courgette goes a little darker than I thought it would – so approach with a pinch of caution – but is entirely successful, a little haunting and lovely. A lot is crammed into its 66 minutes, yet it finds time to let its characters be, and for those huge eyes to disclose what's going on in their unusually real interior worlds.