Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc)

Inside me is the universe.

(2013) Drama (Under the Milky Way) Dawid Ogrodnik, Dorota Kolak, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Helena Sujecka, Mikolaj Roznerski, Kamil Tkacz, Tymoteusz Marciniak, Anna Nehrebecka, Katarzyna Zawadzka, Anna Karczmarczyk, Agnieszka Kotlarska, Janusz Chabior, Gabriela Muskala, Lech Dyblik, Izabela Dabrowska, Marek Kalita, Witold Wielinski, Teresa Iwko. Directed by Maciej Pieprzyca


A young man intones, quite seriously as young men will, that “tits and stars are two of God’s greatest inventions.” Although I know of few young men who would disagree, the man uttering this bit of wisdom is about as extraordinary as he gets.

Young Mateusz (Tkacz) is diagnosed by an officious state doctor (Muskala) as mentally retarded and little more than a vegetable. “You’ll never be able to communicate with him,” she bluntly tells the boy’s frazzled mother (Kolak) and whimsical but loving father (Arkadiusz), “You must learn to accept this.” She recommends putting him in a state facility where he can be cared for properly, but his parents won’t hear of it Dad, a day laborer who has a tendency to put off home projects in order to go out drinking, talks to his son as if his son can understand what he’s saying and shows him how to build things. What nobody realizes is that Mateusz understands every word being said to him.

His father dies young and it is left to his mother, his indifferent sister (Sujecka) and his younger brother (Roznerski) who joins the Polish navy, while the sister gets married and criticizes her mother for dealing with Mateusz so long. Eventually his mom realizes she is no longer physically capable of caring for her son and reluctantly has him sent to a state facility where he’ll be treated as a vegetable.

Now a young man (Ogrodnik), Mateusz is in the process of discovering girls – in particular neighbor Anka (Karczmarczyk) whose stepfather is abusive. Frustrated and unable to do anything about the violence he sees through the window, he manages to figure out a way to get the stepdad out of the way but as Mateusz ruefully notes in a voiceover narration (a very clever device the way it is used here), things don’t work out as Mateusz hoped as Anka and her mother move away.

Still, Mateusz is a handsome young man and he eventually finds another girlfriend – a pretty young aide (Zawadzka) who allows Mateusz to delve into more sexual exploration than he ever has. However, it turns out that she has an agenda of her own and soon Mateusz is alone again, visited only by his mother. Will he ever be able to communicate with the outside world? It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal the answer to that.

Movies like this are often disdained as manipulative tearjerkers, but this one has much more going for it than merely an emotional wallop. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot – the vistas of Poland’s countryside and villages are made pure magic by cinematographer Pawel Dyllus. For another thing, the score is far from maudlin and beautifully underscores the scenes and scenery – you can thank Bartosz Chajdecki for that.

Best of all it has an astounding performance by Ogrodnik who is perfectly healthy although his noises and movements are very realistic for someone who has cerebral palsy (as the real Mateusz actually wound up having). Much of his acting must come from his eyes as his twisted limbs don’t always communicate much, although his facial expressions sometimes reminded me of silent movie actors.

He is well-supported by those who play his mother and father, as well as the redoubtable Anka who has a moment when the two touch fingers beneath a closed door which is all the goodbye the two lovers will get. The scene in which Mateusz communicates with his mother for the first time in his life is absolutely beautiful and any mother of a disabled son will appreciate it, not to mention any moviegoer with any sort of empathy. Believe me, tears will flow.

Poland has been a source for great movies for decades now, and this one is yet another one to add to the list. For my money, it’s likely the best Polish movie to hit these shores since Ida and while it is only getting a direct to VOD release here, it’s one any good cinema buff worth their salt should seek out forthwith.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the best film to come out of Poland since Ida. Tremendous performances abound, particularly from Ogrodnik, Kolak and Zawadzka. The film is beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexual content as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
3100: Run and Become


This is Where We Live

Just a couple of good ol' boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

Just a couple of good ol’ boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

(2013) Drama (Bluff City) Tobias Segal, Marc Menchaca, Barry Corbin, Frankie Shaw, C.K. McFarland, Ron Hayden, Katherine Willis, Marco Perella, Brent Smiga, Brian Orr, Christine Bruno, Carolyn Gilroy. Directed by Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Real life isn’t anything like the movies; you don’t need me to tell you that. Sure, sometimes there’s a resemblance but most of the time we just kind of trudge our way through. There’s nothing really heroic about it from our own perspectives. Others however might disagree.

Some might see Diane Sutton (McFarland) as a heroine although I doubt she’d agree. The Suttons of Llano, Texas (up in the Hill Country for those looking to visit) have had it rough. If bad breaks were an art form, Diane would be Picasso. Her adult son August (Segal) has Cerebral Palsy in one of its most severe forms. Her husband Bob (Hayden) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Her daughter Lainey (Shaw) has an attitude the size of Texas and seems bitter at the lot life has given her. On top of it Diane’s blood pressure is high and her doctor (Perella) advises her to slow down, eat better and stop lifting heavy objects.

Yeah, right. Not on this planet. Nobody else possesses the strength and the cognition to move August from his wheelchair to bed (or to the shower or to the toilet). Even getting him out of the house is a chore of brute strength as Diane has to carefully maneuver him down the stairs. And she is the breadwinner, stocking shelves at a local grocery store. To say she’s tuckered out is an understatement.

At last she hires a handyman to build a wheelchair ramp for their home. Noah (Menchaca) is a hard drinking good ol’ boy who bears an eerie resemblance to Walker, Texas Ranger-era Chuck Norris (a fact which amuses Bob no end). He also has some demons of his own but he has a kind heart and August and he get along famously. Diane observes this and with the kind of hope that can only come from a woman used to being disappointed by life, she asks him if he can help out watching August.

To her surprise, he says yes. Noah becomes a caretaker for August who seems pretty amped to have a friend. Lainey regards Noah with suspicion and not a little hostility for her part. Noah gradually learns what is required to care for an adult whose mind is perfectly fine but is trapped in a body that prevents him from doing even the most basic things. As Noah gets to know August better, a deep friendship forms between the two.

However, Noah is prone to messing up and when you are caring for another human being, you can’t have too many of those. Noah’s presence has triggered something in each member of the family, as his interaction with them has triggered something in himself. Will their journeys unite them or will this family – in as fragile a state as any family can be in – be torn apart?

This could easily have been a Lifetime Movie about a heroic mom who holds a family beset by illness and tragedy together with the force of her will but Menchaca – who wrote and co-directed this – wisely chose to pass on the treacle and write from the heart with an eye (and ear) for the everyday struggles of working families who more or less have to go it alone in difficult times. The Suttons aren’t saints, nor are they sinners – they’re just folks like you and I, in a nearly intolerable situation and coping the best they can which isn’t always pretty. Sometimes they take out their frustrations out on each other. Sometimes they are unexpectedly tender. At no time are they anything other than authentic.

This is also as Texas a movie as you’re ever going to get. I’m not talking Dallas Cowboys Texas – I’m talking about small town Texas where skipping rocks is about all the entertainment you’re going to get on a dusty afternoon. Rather than turning the townspeople into chainsaw-wielding maniacs, it draws them closer together. They look out for each other and while sometimes they look away when someone makes a fool of themselves, you get a sense that this is a community that is fully aware that all they really have is each other. Cinematographer Ryan Booth captures the lonely desolation that has its own beauty and grandeur from the small town diners to the dusty prairie to the calm before a violent thunderstorm. This is a beautiful film that even those who don’t love Texas will see why many do.

Segal has the most physically demanding role and he handles it about as well as can be expected. His frustration at being unable to communicate is palpable – imagine if you couldn’t speak, had limited movement of your limbs and had to rely on caretakers for everything – even letting them know what your basic needs are can be a challenge, particularly for someone who doesn’t know you well enough to understand that your fingers brought to your mouth means you need to go to the bathroom, not that you’re hungry. It is pivotal that Segal convey that to the audience and he does so nicely

Menchaca also gives a superior performance as Noah. Noah’s a good ol’ boy sure but he’s also damaged, his relationship with his own family shredded and strained if it exists at all. His ghosts are influencing his interactions with the Suttons for better and occasionally for worse. Noah can be violent, particularly when he drinks (which is often) but he can be kind as well. He has empathy for Diane and even for Lainey who treats him shabbily.

McFarland does a magnificent job as well. Diane starts out heroic but as the movie progresses so too does our perception of her. She’s not the saint we first thought she was; there is a selfishness to her as well; she resents Noah’s relationship with August and as she becomes less of his total focus she doesn’t know exactly what to do so she lashes out – at Lainey, at Bob, at Noah and even occasionally at August himself.

The most impressive thing here is that for virtually the entire cast and crew (although veteran actor Barry Corbin is aboard) this is their first feature-length film. This is as mature and as accomplished a film as you’d be likely to find from veteran Hollywood crews as there are – that it comes from a tyro independent team is to say the least encouraging.

This will be playing the festival circuit for awhile. Hopefully a savvy distributor will get hold of it and give it some sort of theatrical release (if not a home video release). This is one of those hidden gems that you’ll want to view more than once, as welcome as a summer storm on a dry dusty molten hot August day in the Texas highlands. For any serious film buff, this is one to seek out. Check their Facebook page regularly (click on the photo above) to see when it’s playing near you and if it is, do what you have to and see it. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Real people facing a real issue realistically. Each character undertakes a fascinating journey. Beautifully photographed and acted.

REASONS TO STAY: Some moments may be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a few bad words here and there, some scenes of child peril, some sexuality and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Sutton house was actually the home of Menchaca’s football coach who had recently passed away; much of the furniture and fixtures within were original to the house.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just now hitting the festival circuit.



NEXT: Pride and Joy and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!