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Maybe because adolescence is surreal enough, French writer-director Michel Gondry restrains his usual visual quirks in the charming coming-of-age comedy "Microbe & Gasoline."

Daniel (Ange Dargent), 14, is the smallest kid in his class, earning him the unwanted nickname "Microbe." He befriends the new kid, Theo (Théophile Baquet), who tinkers with engines and is dubbed "Gasoline" by the school bullies. The pair hang out together, partly to avoid Daniel's clingy mom (Audrey Tautou), but also to salvage junk to sell as scrap for Theo's unappreciative father (played by the one-named actor Zimsky).

When Theo finds a two-stroke lawn-mower engine, he and Daniel decide to build their own car, disguised as a small house to elude the highway patrol, and have an adventure across France — including a quest to the summer house of Laura (Diane Besnier), Daniel's unrequited crush.

Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Be Kind Rewind") keeps his usual offbeat style in check, though the design of the boys' house-car is pretty whimsical. Mostly he finds the joy in the boys' small triumphs of growing up, contemplating girls and becoming fast friends.

'Microbe & Gasoline'

Opening Friday, Aug. 12, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas; rated R for some sex-related material involving young teens; in French with subtitles; 104 minutes.