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A laboriously uplifting tribute to the human spirit, Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc) is Poland’s belated addition to the triumph-over-disability sub-genre typified by the far superior My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Unashamedly manipulative in its sustained targeting of viewers’ tear-ducts, this true-story-inspired tale of a man with cerebral palsy’s decades-long struggle to communicate has amply established crowd-pleasing credentials on its first two festival appearances in Gdynia and Montreal.
Further such festival bookings — and prizes — are very likely to follow over the coming months, and the slickly-mounted picture has the makings of a decent mid-level hit when it opens in Poland on Oct. 11, though it’s much too anodyne to make significant ripples at overseas box offices.
Having won the Best Debut prize at his country’s national film festival at Gdynia in 2008 with Splinters, writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca enjoyed further success on the Baltic coast five years later, sharing the runner-up Silver Lion trophy and taking the Audience Award outright. Life Feels Good had premiered at Montreal’s World Film Festival earlier in September, where it also topped the audience voting in addition to scooping the event’s prime honor, the Grand prix des Ameriques.
It’s already rather an impressive haul for what will strike many as a rather old-fashioned treatment of disability issues, albeit one which might be seen at home as groundbreaking and even brave in terms of Polish mainstream cinema. Attitudes to the physically and mentally challenged were, the movie informs us, even more unenlightened in the eighties, nineties and early 2000s, the period when protagonist Mateusz — played as a child by Kamil Tcakz and as an adult by Dawid Ogrodnik — was growing up.
Though doted on by his loving family — world-weary mother, madcap father, younger brother and older sister — Mateusz was the victim of an early and drastic medial misdiagnosis, his movement-inhibiting physical condition assessed as severely impairing his mental faculties. “You’ll never communicate with him,” his mom (Dorota Kolak) is brusquely informed by a typically unsympathetic official in the prologue, “You can put him in a special home. It’s a vegetable.”
The audience is, however, always very much aware of Mateusz’s lively intelligence courtesy of articulate voice-over deployed throughout, even if the lad himself isn’t able to vocalize his thoughts. It’s only after 26 years of strenuous effort that Mateusz finally finds a way to communicate, involving pointing out symbols in a special book. His is an unusual, affecting and inspiring story by any measure, but Pieprzyca’s approach is so airlessly stiff that the picture barely gets a chance to breathe. Bartosz Chajdecki‘s score never misses a chance to underline the poignant bittersweet-ness of the enterprise, tinkling piano joined by echoey whistling effects for particularly emotive passages.
As mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Tropic Thunder, this sort of material is notoriously ripe for awards-bait performances, but there’s no denying the impact of Ogrodnik’s emphathetic portrayal, building on the very solid foundations provided by young newcomer Tkacz’s sterling contributions to the early reels.
But whatever empathetic liveliness this pair can impart is counterbalanced by Pieprzyca’s carefully middle-of-the-road, cliche-ridden style, and his tendency to tip-toe around anything that might disturb or repel general audiences. Mateusz’s romantic fumblings are played for wry chuckles, and there’s very little about the messy quotidian realities of caring for the severely physically disabled.
Dividing the action up into chapters heralded by numbered, teasingly gnomic title-cards (“1: Proof”, “2: Wizard”) meanwhile lends Life Feels Good — that blandly ironic title a catch-phrase of one cheery orderly — a clunkily episodic air, impeding the narrative flow of a film whose 112-minute duration quickly becomes an earnest slog.
Venue: Gdynia Film Festival (Main Competition)
Production company: Tramway
Cast: Dawid Ogrodnik, Dorota Kolak, Kamil Tkacz, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Helena Sujecka, Mikolaj Roznerski, Anna Nehrebecka
Director / Screenwriter: Maciej Pieprzyca
Producer: Wieslaw Lysakowski
Director of photography: Pawel Dyllus
Production designer: Joanna Anastazja Wojcik
Costume designer: Agata Culak
Editor: Krzysztof Szpetmanski
Music: Bartosz Chajdecki
Sales: TVP, Warsaw
No MPAA rating, 112 minutes
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