Two outstanding films were on display at the Filmfest Hamburg this year. On the surface they couldn’t be more different. Up close they couldn’t be more alike.
ALLES AUSSER GEWÖHNLICH (Hors Normes, The Specials) is remarkable. According to the two French officials from the state agency IGAS there is no way that Bruno (Vincent Cassel) and Malik (Reda Kateb) should be taking profoundly autistic children ice skating or on weekly outings to a horse farm. Middle-aged bachelor Bruno, who wears a yarmulke under his baseball cap, has devoted his life to care for severely autistic children and adolescents who nobody wants. Malik, his Muslim friend and father of three children, runs an organization that trains youth from deprived urban areas (not all documented) to become caregivers to these children. Neither of their agencies is state licensed.
Though the film is heartwarming, there is nothing sanitized about it. The dozens of children in their care are often uncommunicative, unpredictable and violent. Adolescent Joseph (Benjamin Lesieur, who is autistic and brilliantly plays a version of himself), can fix any broken washing machine. When Bruno finally gets him a job at a repair shop he struggles to ride the metro alone without giving into his compulsion to set off the alarm. Another young teenager Valentin (Marco Locatelli) has to wear protective headgear to stop him from injuring himself. (The actor himself has a brother who is autistic). Valentin is cooped up all day and his only escape is occasionally getting to the farm to connect with the horses.
This fast-paced comedy, yes comedy, makes you want to cheer for the good guys Bruno and Malik who are based on real people (Stephane Benhamou and Daoud Tatou). They are in a race to save every endangered autistic child who has fallen through the cracks of the French care system. Hot on their trail are the two caricatured inspectors wanting to shut them down.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is also remarkable. It is a heartwarming comedy focused on a developmentally disabled character Zak. Zak is superbly played by Zachary Gottsagen who himself has Down syndrome; the writers/directors wrote the movie for him. Like the autistic washing machine repairman Joseph in ALLES AUSSER GEWÖHNLICH, Zak can function outside an institution in the real world. (Notably both actors are themselves disabled). Zak is living a wretched life in an assisted care facility, in this case an old folks’ home because there is no other place that wants him. He, too, has fallen through the cracks of the state care system.
The caregivers in both films dedicate their lives completely to these youths. They battle furiously against any institution, government officials, or outright villains who try to rob their charges of their dignity and freedom.
Bruno and Malik in ALLES AUSSER GEWÖHNLICH are super heroes who live in the city, powered by adrenaline, and are always in a hurry. Bruno’s cell phone never stops ringing. Do they ever sleep? When Valentin breaks out, they with their team, make a frantic all night city-wide-search for him; then they go to work the next day.
In THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON volunteer caregiver Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), on-the-lam crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), and on-the-run Zak are moving at a pretty slow pace considering people are out to get them. That is the allure of this movie, watching them sail through the North Carolina countryside on the river raft; it is a movie with all the charm of a leisurely road trip. There is lots of time to visit a badass blind preacher and a washed-up benevolent wrestler Salt Water Redneck, while bluegrass banjos, country songs, gospel hymns play in the background. Hardly any movie critic can resist dubbing it a modern Mark Twain adventure story.
ALLES AUSSER GEWÖHNLICH is very French: everyone bans together in solidarité to help the disabled. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is very American: individuals buck the system to help one disabled youth Zak. Each has a social conscience tinged with national trappings. Both are superb movies not to be missed.