Directors and screenwriters Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache seem to be making a career out of feel-good movies about gnarly subjects. Their huge hit, Intouchables (2011), the second most successful film ever made in France, was an upbeat film about the friendship between a paraplegic and his carer, and now the pair have made Hors Normes (The Specials), about a Jewish man, Bruno (the excellent Vincent Cassel) and a Muslim man, Malik (the equally excellent Reda Kateb), working together to help children with severe autism who have been rejected by other institutions because they are too difficult to care for.
Sounds like it could get gooey, but Toledano and Nakache handle this tough story with grace. That is not to say, however, that it does not tug on the heartstrings and occasionally bring a tear to the eye, but it also inspires many smiles.
Hors Normes is based on the true story of Stéphane Benhamou and Daoud Tatou (the former served as an adviser on the film), who met as young summer camp counselors. Each eventually founded an association to work with autistic children.
The device that moves the plot along is a government inspection of their unorthodox activities and methods. If they don’t get the stamp of approval, both associations might be shut down. In between scenes with the children and the very busy Bruno’s bumbling attempts to find a girlfriend (always at the instigation of his entourage), we see the skeptical inspectors interrogating the various people involved.
The actors are all superb, and one of the most touching figures in the film, Joseph, is brilliantly played by an autistic young man, Benjamin Lesieur. In an interview, the directors talk about how he was able to overcome many of his fears (like wearing a belt) during filming. His dance performance at the end of the movie is a high point.
One of the most deeply affected children in the film, Valentin, was played by a non-professional actor, Marco Locatelli, who turned up at an open audition and who has a severely autistic brother himself.
As with Intouchables, you feel a bit guilty for enjoying this feel-good film, knowing that you are being manipulated, but it’s done so effectively that you can’t help but just give in and let your heart be warmed.