Author's note: I was obliged to see the Swiss-French film in its English-language dub. And a perfectly fine dub it was, but some of the language choices screamed "this flowed better in French", and I never quite bought the casting choices for two of the most important child characters. So, grain of salt.

To look at My Life as a Zucchini - 2016's entry in the now-standard "Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee distributed by the invaluable GKIDS" genre - you would 100% assume that it's a children's film. Even to hear the plot, you'd assume it's a children's film: it's the story of a sad little boy who ends up at an orphanage, where he meets a quintet of other misfit children who teach him the warm pleasure of being part of a close-knit group for the first time in his life; later, when a new girl shows up at the orphanage, he feels the first stirring of pre-adolescent love.

It is surely not a children's film. At least, not the kind of flighty, fluffy children's film with a heartwarming message like you'd assume from that plot. This is a downright Dickensian tale, in fact, treating with serious dignity the darkest kind of childhood, one stripped bare of love or any kindness. Our protagonist, for example, is named Icare, but the title comes from his nickname "Zucchini", scornfully given to him by his alcoholic mother; Icare insistently adopts that name out of some sweetly misguided sense of loyalty to the woman, whom he'll continue to look to as a paragon of parental love and affection (his father left before the boy was old enough to remember) well into his time at the orphanage, when he finally starts to discover adults who are actually nice and loving. As for what sends him to the orphanage, it's a night when he accidentally drops one of the beer cans that are his only "toys" down the stair to the stark attic that functions as his bedroom, and his mother storms up the stairs in a violent frenzy. Zucchini, panicked, slams the door shut on her head, presumably killing her.

All of this is harrowing, and enormously sad, all the more so since it's filtered through the mind of a child too simple and delicate to process what a horrible shit world he lives in (he's drawn a picture of his dad on a homemade kite, with a baby chicken on the reverse side, because all he knows is that his father "liked chicks" - somehow, this dopey innocence hit me as the most heartbreaking tiny detail in the film). That being said, My Life as a Zucchini is, in fact, an enormously charming comedy, against all odds, and available evidence. It's as much a tribute to the uncanny resilience of children as to the ghastly traumas of childhood, and for all its bittersweet moments - the seven children of the orphanage, looking on with melancholic longing at a parent and child enjoying a blandly everyday moment on the ski slopes being the most potent of these - it's certainly more funny and upbeat than sad.

It's certainly an upbeat, playful movie just to look at. Director Claude Barras, making his first feature (and a blissfully compact 66-minute feature it is, too) after many years' worth of shorts, is a specialist in stop-motion animation using clay puppets, and in the particular case of My Life as a Zucchini, it's quite colorful, bright clay, too. Zucchini himself is a bold cartoon character, with bright blue hair and a red nose atop a pale white face - a white face that speaks to a lifetime of privation, particularly owing to the deep blue rings around his saucer-shaped eyes, but the film doesn't insist on it - and the whole cast share a design mentality that evokes a gifted preteen with a good sense of detail creating whimsical figurines out of polymer clay. The sets are much the same: you would never mistake any of them for the real world, and they feel palpably like something small enough to have been built on a kitchen table. They also subscribe to the same palette of oversaturated colors as the characters, and for much the same effect: capturing a spirit of childish handicraft and pure enthusiasm even in the face of misery.

The look of the film is a major part of why My Life as a Zucchini manages to avoid being a devastating drag. The other part is that CΓ©line Sciamma's script (with input from Barras, Germano Zullo, and Morgan Navarro), adapted from Gilles Paris's book, is a fairly perfect blend of harshly honest observations about suffering in the world, with equally honest representations of the fact that people still have imaginations and ways of expressing themselves (Sciamma's last film as a director, 2014's Girlhood, struck a somewhat similar note, in fact), and that having a shitty life only makes it more important, not less, to exercise that imagination. My Life as a Zucchini manages to have, in fact, a really lovely, cleanly-described cast of child characters (the adults are so much background radiation), with the tragic bully Simon and the smart Camille in particular emerging as outstanding supporting characters who help guide Zucchini on his own little path of coming to terms with what his life has been and finding hope that might eventually be more. Simon is a particularly nifty bit of writing and animation, his surly face and nasty behavior constantly promising that he's going to be at the center of one kind of story, only for the film to dodge in a new direction and reveal him to be a more complicated, humane, wise figure than we'd expect from the generic requirements of the movie, as well as the evident simplicity with which the filmmakers have elected to approach the story.

"Evident", not "actual"; for all its wildly short running time, primary color production design, elemental story, and unsubtle themes, My Life as a Zucchini is quite a wonderfully thoughtful piece of storytelling. Movies about children that are fully intelligent at an adult level are hardly common, but Barras and company make it look almost mindlessly easy here; the result is a film too full of love for its bleak snapshot of childhood interrupted to be unpleasant, and too unstinting in the simple honesty of that bleakness to come across as more than mildly sentimental.