'Summer in the Forest': Film Review

A praiseworthy social experiment gets a sweet but patience-testing tribute.

Randall Wright's doc sees the fruit of decades of creating communities for the disabled.

For more than half a century, a former sailor in the British Navy has made a home for people whose intellectual disabilities might otherwise doom them to life in gloomy or even violent hospitals — first in a tranquil town north of Paris, then in more than a hundred such communities in dozens of countries. Tagging along with the now octogenarian Jean Vanier and meeting some members of his surrogate family, Randall Wright's Summer in the Forest champions his vision by quietly watching it in harmonious action. Sure to be embraced by others doing such work and those who benefit from it, the doc isn't much as a movie, or even in terms of pure educational value for those interested in the workings of Vanier's L'Arche nonprofit. It will, however, likely make a good fundraiser for further group homes.

Press materials say that the community's first members, who were called "idiots" at the time for their disabilities, "were locked away and forgotten in violent asylums, until the 1960s, when the young philosopher Jean Vanier took a stand and secured their release. It was the first time in history that anyone had beaten the system, and together, they created L'Arche." Nothing remotely that dramatic is recounted here, and viewers will largely piece together their own versions of the project's early years. Vanier discusses his childhood here; we learn of L'Arche's expansion from one to several houses there; in the second half, we suddenly find ourselves transported from France to a L'Arche outpost in Bethlehem.

The film is more explicit in its handling of central characters Philippe, Michel, Andre and Patrick. Jean introduces them briefly, assessing each one's personality tenderly (Andre, for instance, is "a child who has been deeply wounded"; Patrick is, we're told fondly, "completely crazy"). More important is the time we spend with each man, seeing both the way community members support him, and, equally important, the freedom he is given to go off and be himself. Some of the men are quite old, but all seem to be as active as they want to be, their excursions enabled by younger staff members.

We return frequently to Vanier, whose kindhearted talk about "peace and universal justice" might sometimes be fodder for a cynic's sneer, were there any cynics in the audience. "The big human problem," he observes, "is just to accept all people as they are." But of course it isn't easy to accept those who are actively persecuting you. When his activities with L'Arche take him to Paris, Vanier laments having to hear the "competitive" way people talk there.

The movie's Edenic vision prioritizes long footage of group meals and daily routines over talk of funding or governmental policy, which will suit viewers wanting to vicariously experience a community where acceptance is the overriding principle. Others may wonder if there isn't someone pushing to bring this enlightened approach into stiffer institutions — teaching governments, say, the lessons L'Arche has learned in its decades of caring for the disabled.

Production company: R2W Films
Distributor: Mangurama
Director: Randall Wright
Producers: Richard Wilson, Randall Wright
Director of photography: Patrick Duval
Editor: Paul Binns
Composer: John Harle

107 minutes