The Zigzag Kid's irresistible charm leaps off the screen thanks to Bal's flourishing imagery and gifted cast.
The Zigzag Kid (SFJFF Review)
When I was a kid, movies like Beauty and the Beast, The Sandlot, Toy Story, and Star Wars opened the floodgates of my imagination, inspiring me to dream up some big adventure stories of my own. These films have only grown more precious to me as I get older and, looking back, the common denominator seems to be that they didn’t talk down to me or insult my intelligence. These movies had real danger, intense emotion, and high stakes, unlike a lot of squeaky-clean, pandering, cookie-cutter kid’s movies that made me feel dumber after watching them.
Vincent Bal‘s The Zigzag Kid is a fantastic film that I’d be more than happy to share with my (future) kids. Its wondrous, whimsical imagery, playfully elusive mystery plot, and sprawling sense of adventure make me jealous of any kid who’s lucky enough to add it to their budding movie memory bank (much like Scorsese’s Hugo, which is cut from the same cloth.) The ending has a touch of morbidity that may be a bit too complex and distressing for the youngest of crowds, but it goes to show the respect Bal has for the intellect of his audience. This is a smart film, meant for smart kids—one character in the film sums it up nicely, “Maybe I gave you a hint now and then, but it’s better than being spoon-fed like a baby.”
Nono (Thomas Simon) is a wide-eyed, unusually perceptive kid who wants to be just like his dad, Jacob (Fedja van Huet), the world’s best and most amazing detective. Nono’s been trained since birth to be a formidable super-sleuth by his old man, but he’s more mischievous than his straight-laced dad would like. When at an outdoor Bar Mitzvah, Nono tries to spice up the party by jumping off of the roof of a building with an umbrella. He imagines the feat will be a party-starting spectacle (which we see realized cinematically, a frequent occurrence), but he instead ends up landing butt-first onto the other kid’s cake.
Nono’s mom has never been around (the only evidence he has of her is a photo of her back), but he isn’t lacking female influence—his dad’s “secretary”, Gaby (Jessica Zeylmaker), is a loving, nurturing mother-figure who encourages Nono to be himself and have a blast.
Upset by the Bar Mitzvah fiasco, Jacob sends Nono off on a train to see his uncle to tame his transgressive behavior, two days before his own Bar Mitzvah. On the train, Nono discovers that his father has pulled a fast one on him, and has instead given him the gift of an adventure. He meets a mysterious old man named Felix (Burghart Klaußner, a skilled burglar) who takes him on a wild ride full of cat-and-mouse foot chases, disguises, a giant chocolate factory (so fun), clever deception, and some life-changing revelations. They meet an old chanteuse named Lola (Isabella Rossellini), who Nono heard about through Gaby. As Nono begins to piece together clues that point to the true identity of Felix and Lola, a larger truth—about the true whereabouts of his mother—comes to light.
The Zigzag Kid whizzes by in a flash (the 90 minutes feel like 45), but when you slow down and take a step back, what you’ll find is a story of age-old themes—trust, family, the hero’s journey, self-discovery. Bal frames these classic themes in a world that’s hugely imaginative, stylized, and super cool. The performances by the cast are all fantastic, particularly Simon, a gifted, endearing young actor who hangs beat for beat with the veterans.
Bal and DP Walter Vanden Ende fill the screen with delightfully inventive, wildly varied images that’ll keep your eyes glued. The world displayed is undoubtedly our own, but the colors, compositions, and exhilarating editing up the fantasy factor. In my favorite sequence, we go from a thief tip-toeing across a crane, silhouetted by the pale moon, to the same thief being handcuffed by a policeman while neck-deep in a vat of chocolate. The film’s endlessly amusing, unpredictable moments had me grinning from ear to ear from start to finish.
The film’s final reveal is surprisingly bitter and sobering for such a high-speed joyride, but it doesn’t derail a thing. Actually, it’s nice to see a challenging topic being tackled in a family-friendly film like this. The Zigzag Kid‘s irresistible charm leaps off the screen thanks to Bal’s flourishing imagery and gifted cast. I see it gracing my TV screen for many a family movie night in the future.