Making a dramatic feature about people who are autistic presents a steep challenge. How do you get an audience to connect with individuals whose defining trait is their inability to connect? “Rain Man,” a popular entertainment that I take utterly seriously, was structured almost entirely around the dramatic conundrum posed by that question. Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond was locked inside his head of numbers, his spasms of anxiety, the reflexive aphorisms (“I’m an excellent driver”) that defined his existence. The film never violated the self-contained unit that Raymond was. Yet it told the story of how he was, in the end, able to connect (sort of) without literally connecting. There was a beautiful conviction to that.
But in a context that isn’t so Hollywood, a movie that tries to deal honestly with far-end-of-the-spectrum autism faces a trap. If you make the characters “relatable,” you’re probably soft-pedaling the issue. But if you keep them pure in their detachment, then you risk walling them off from the audience.
“The Specials,” the social-issue drama that closed the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, dramatizes a true story based on the figure of Stephane Benhamou, who for years in Paris has run a shelter for autistic teens and young adults with symptoms severe enough that even hospitals slink away from caring for them. Stephane, called Bruno here, is played by Vincent Cassel, in a scraggly dust-gray beard that makes him look older than we’re used to seeing him. There’s nothing old about his energy, though. Cassel gives a zealous, live-wire performance as a man who exists to serve the people that most caretakers don’t want to be bothered with.
When we first meet Bruno, he’s wearing a New York Yankees cap. After about 15 minutes, he takes it off — and reveals, to our surprise, that he’s got a yarmulke on underneath. It turns out to be far from incidental that Bruno is an Orthodox Jew. We never hear him discuss religion (and his partner, as we learn, is a Muslim), but his identity is that of a compulsive outsider, one driven to create a safety net for the needy that’s removed from the system.
Bruno’s home for the autistic is called Voice of the Righteous, and it houses about 40 patients, but he’s always trying to cram more of them in — and more staff, too, even though he doesn’t have the funds for it. “We’ll find a solution” is his terse mantra, and it has kept his organization going for 15 years without certification. But Bruno is scraping by on willpower, and now the state bureaucracy wants to shut him down.
This sounds like powerful stuff, and “The Specials” is grounded in a vibe of commitment. It was written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, the team who, in 2011, made the controversial “Intouchables” (a buddy comedy built around a quadriplegic), and the filmmakers are, in fact, friends with Stephane Benhamou. The movie features a sprinkling of autistic actors, and several of those connected with the project — notably Toledano — have a link to the material through autistic members of their own families.
Yet “The Specials,” in the end, is not a very compelling movie. It’s arduous and rambling and repetitive; it skitters across the surface of the story it’s telling. The film lacks a vibrant structure, but more than that, it never brings us close to the people it shows us. Despite the clear devotion of the filmmakers, the autistic figures in the film are viewed from a nagging distance — most of them are scarcely developed as characters, even on their own troubled terms. The movie opens with a girl named Emilie dashing through the streets, screaming and knocking people over, as if she were some delinquent banshee crying out for help (and as if the Dardenne brothers were trying to make an action film). The camera stays glued to her, begging for our investment. Yet once this showpiece sequence is over, the film loses all interest in Emilie, even when she pops up in Bruno’s shelter. I felt like she was being morally abandoned.
A couple of the autistic characters are given a healthy amount of screen time, but that only makes it more frustrating that they remain one-note figures. Joseph, played by Benjamin Lesieur, is a functional obsessive whose anxieties cause him to compulsively set off the alarm whenever he’s riding the Métro. He also has a problematic relationship with his mother, who he keeps threatening to hit, but the filmmakers, in treating this as borderline comedy, fail to give Joseph any layers. Lesieur, who looks like a fusion of Gérard Depardieu and Mason Reese, has a compelling presence, but Joseph, even as we get to “know” him, remains the same nattering superficial joker-doofus in every scene.
The same sort of thing is true, only more so, with Valentin (Marco Locatelli), the most violent and tormented of the characters. He’s a preteen strapped into protective headgear to keep him from banging his head against the wall, and that armor is disturbing to behold; he’s like the character in the self-help cult of Todd Haynes’ “Safe” who never removed his masked body suit. It feels daring to put a character like this one on screen, but though there are vivid scenes where we see how hard Valentin is to manage, the film never gives us a sense of who he is when he’s not in the grip of a tantrum. I’m not suggesting that such a thing could have been communicated verbally. But Nakache and Toledano work in such an “objective” way that their camera scarcely probes what’s in front of it.
That includes the lives of the caretakers. Bruno is partners with Malik (Reda Kateb), who runs his own organization for non-autistic children from deprived backgrounds (he’s based on the real-life figure of Daoud Tatou), and these two are at the center of the movie’s drama. The trouble is, “The Specials” doesn’t have much drama. Who is Bruno? He’s a loner who goes on occasional blind dates (where he says inept things such as “I like divorcees”), and despite Cassel’s committed presence, he remains a bit obtuse as a character. “The Specials” is built around the face-off between Bruno and the inspectors (Frederic Pierrot and Suliane Brahim) who are investigating his organization for the state agency IGAS. This should have been a conflict that built and fused and exploded. Instead, it’s simply presented. Should Bruno’s organization be allowed to exist? Of course; he’s taking in the people no one else wants. But as valiant a mission as that is, “The Specials” feels like an editorial posing as a movie.