Neither tearfully sentimental nor coldly scientific, “Life Feels Good,” Maciej Pieprzyca’s film about a man with cerebral palsy struggling to communicate to those around him that he is an intelligent, sentient human being, instead proves oddly entertaining. The protagonist, diagnosed as mentally retarded since childhood, delivers interior monologues that supply ironically normal counterpoint to the contorted sounds and spastic movements he makes. Brilliantly thesped by non-disabled actors playing the character as both child and grown-up, the film captures as much wonderment as frustration, and is filled with fully fleshed-out characters that defy simple categorization. Having swept the jury, audience and ecumenical prizes at the Montreal fest, this Polish feature could generate genuine arthouse interest.
Helmer-scripter Pieprzyca places the character of Mateusz squarely at his story’s center. As a boy (Kamil Tkacz), Mateusz devises a unique method of moving around the apartment, lying on his back and flailing his arms to propel himself backward, which gives him a measure of autonomy. His happy childhood provides all kinds of education, from social instruction gained by watching neighbors from his window, to cosmic knowledge imparted by his whimsical wizard of a father (Arkadiusz Jakubik). While his mother (Dorota Kolak) wheels him around and showers him with kisses and laughter, his father fires his imagination.
As he grows up, Mateusz (his role now undertaken by David Ogrodnik) even wins a loving girlfriend, the beautiful blonde next door (Anna Karczmarczyk). But, as with all his attempts to influence the world around him, his efforts to help her backfire: Momentarily freed of her abusive dad, she flees with Mom to parts unknown. Exit romance.
But not sex. Once his father dies and his mother becomes unable to physically tend to him, Mateusz is uprooted and placed in a home for the mentally disabled (or “morons,” as they are unkindly called), where only his undying interest in breasts keeps him sane. He devises a system to judge female caretakers by breast size, since they have little else going for them. Even more than at home, where his excitement at possibilities for communication were misread as hysteria and met with sympathetic quashing of his supposed “fits,” he is treated like a mindless carcass in the asylum.
Then Magda (Katarzyna Zawadzka), a beautiful new nurse, arrives and pays loving attention, dancing for him and waltzing with him in the wheelchair, the subjective camera turning in time to celebratory music. She even lets him touch her breasts; Mateusz feels vindicated. But comprehension does not always prove a blessing: When Magda takes him on an outing for her own neurotic needs, he understands her betrayal all too clearly.
Pieprzyca situates the central axis of his film in that gap between the emotional vegetable, seen by even the kindliest, and the smart, quite sardonic “inner Mateusz” manifested in his interior monologues and extremely expressive eyes. His erratic movements and unintelligible sounds register less as symptoms of disease than as a language that others are too unimaginative to interpret.
Visually, “Life Feels Good” falls somewhere between the overstated optics of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the clinical/humanistic distance of “The Sessions.” Like these disability dramas, the film is based on a true story, though its happy ending yields some unexpected twists.