By Michael Fox
An unabashed crowd-pleaser in a Day-Glo package, “The Zigzag Kid” transports young-at-heart viewers on a magic carpet of charming hijinks and manic energy.
Belgian director Vincent Bal has transposed vaunted Israeli novelist David Grossman’s beloved 1994 coming-of-age adventure fantasy from the Promised Land to a candy-cane Europe. The result is a confection of a film that dispenses laughs and life lessons en route to a poignant moral about the blood ties that bind.
A family film whose most ardent admirers will be children, “The Zigzag Kid” is fueled by primal adolescent urges. Not the ones you’re thinking of, but the pressing need to comprehend the past, navigate the present and manipulate the future.
The opening credits immediately set the tone in smile-inducing style, employing split-screens, a full-spectrum palette and a pop score to evoke the spy movies (and parodies) of the 1960s and 1970s.
As his 13th birthday approaches, cute-as-a-bug Nono is starting to figure out he can’t abide the rules and conventions that most people passively accept. He’s not a rebel –he admires his detective father to the extent that he mimics Dad’s deductive skills and wants to follow in his gumshoes – so much as a creative thinker and fearless experimenter.
The title comes from Nono’s iconoclasm, as well as the gold pin in the shape of a Z that the world’s greatest thief, Felix Glick, leaves behind as his signature.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. After one of Nono’s bright ideas accidentally sends a cousin’s bar mitzvah reception up in smoke, our erstwhile hero is dispatched to boring Uncle Shmuel as punishment. But dad’s plan is derailed within moments of Nono boarding the train, launching the lad on a mission that takes him to the south of France and back.
“The Zigzag Kid” is tons of fun as it sets its inspired plot in motion, while Nono is a splendid protagonist who never devolves from endearing to tiresome. It helps that he’s aware he’s not completely self-sufficient, for that dollop of humility tempers his precociousness.
In fact, Nono relishes the maternal attention and affection of his father’s (ahem) live-in secretary, Gaby. The boy never knew his mother, who died when he was an infant, and he’d be very happy if the current domestic arrangement continued ad infinitum. (Or, better yet, was sealed with marriage vows if his father could muster the moxie to propose).
But I’m getting behind the story. No matter. Suffice it to say that Nono crosses paths with the 60-something Felix Glick, who quickly presents himself as an alternate role model with his blend of resourcefulness and suaveness.
At a certain point, especially for those adults who have sussed out the relationships between the characters before Nono does, the pieces start to click into place, dissipating the film’s aura of cleverness. Everyone likes a happy ending, sure – although be advised a tragedy is revealed en route – but “The Zigzag Kid” trumpets an allegiance to the primacy of the two-parent family that is downright Spielbergian.
Oddly, I discerned no particular insights into the lives, past or present, of European Jews. In the process of relocating the story from Israel to the Continent, Vincent Bal appears to have focused on preserving the novel’s themes and skipped the opportunity to allude to 20th century history or current events.
One consequence is that “The Zigzag Kid” could be anybody, and not necessarily a fully assimilated Jewish boy whose preparatory, pre-bar mitzvah entry to manhood consists of a unique and remarkable treasure hunt. He finds his mother’s identity, and his, and we get to go along for the ride. Not a bad deal for all concerned, actually.
Michael Fox is a film critic specializing in Jewish films.
The Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County opens its 12th season on Saturday evening, Oct. 26 with the film “Melting Away,” and closes Sunday evening, Nov. 3 with “Nicky’s Family.” In addition to films, the Festival also features the best in Jewish literature, music, visual and performing arts, presented throughout October and November.
Sponsored by the Stamford Jewish Community Center, this year’s Festival is immersed in Israeli culture and society. In addition to “Melting Away” and “Nicky’s Family,” highlights of the Festival include Israeli films such as “Gilad Shalit: The Interview”, “Betrayed”, “To Be Like Avi”, and “White Panther”. Also featured is the Israeli Jazz Café featuring Roy Assaf and his jazz trio.
For Festival information and/or tickets contact Nancy Schiffman at (203) 487-0941 or firstname.lastname@example.org.