Mateusz lays out two of the biggest obstacles facing someone with cerebral palsy in just a sentence, a line of interior monologue that serves as narration for the Polish drama, “Life Feels Good.”
“When you’re a vegetable, no one understands you.”
Communication when you have no command of speech or the limbs it takes to write or even to gesture to the right word on a page is a high hurdle to climb.
And by the time you think of yourself as a “vegetable,” having absorbed that from everyone around you since you were old enough to understand, life can feel permanently circumscribed — the world, fenced off.
They’ve given up, but Mateusz, played with energetic, gnarled physicality by Dawid Orgodnik, is very slow to come to the same conclusion in this true story in the “My Left Foot/Diving Bell and the Butterfly” tradition.
We meet him in his late 20s, as he’s to be evaluated by a panel of medical experts. It’s not his favorite situation. The long flashback that tells his story begins with him resisting testing, even as a child.
Born with cerebral palsy, his limited means of communicating come off as acting out throughout childhood. Everyone from doctors to faith healers in 1980s Poland tells his patient and hopeful, but overwhelmed mother (Dorota Kolak) and indulgent, loving father (a soulful Arkadiusz Jakubik) that he is “mentally deficient” and to learn to accept it.
But Dad includes Mateusz in all the home projects he does with the boy’s brother, Tomek. He shows the kid the stars, talks to him as if he’s sure he understands because he is and becomes the kid’s co-conspirator.
Only they know he’s a normal guy trapped in an abnormal body.
Naturally, considering his luck, his dad dies young, leaving Mateusz with a supportive but not truly able to help him brother and mother, and an older sister, Matylda (Helena Sujecka) who resents him and calls him “idiot” (in Polish, with English subtitles).
As Poland transitions to democracy and Mateusz reaches young adulthood, he takes his takes his first real shot at learning and starts narrating — wryly.
“My favorite class was anatomy,” he smirks without smirking (he can’t) and we see what he sees — disrobing women of all shapes.
He takes to curling up in the apartment window, taking in the world outside and what’s happening inside the windows of the neighbors’ apartments.
Anka (Anna Karczmarczyk) is a new neighbor whose mother “every night invited in a new man to help her sleep.” One of them stays, becomes the abusive stepfather and Mateusz, helpless, looks on. Anka has become his first crush, and trapped in a body that won’t allow him to do much of anything, not able to communicate beyond the simplest ideas to even his own family, he has to find a way to help, to intervene.
One of the most romantic moments you’ll see this year is in a 2013 Polish film only now getting North American release — a severely disabled man, a grateful young woman who doesn’t under-estimate him, touching a single finger beneath a locked door.
If there’s a quibble with this straightforward, overcome-all-odds drama it is that Hollywood cliche — it’s the return of that “crippled” and all-but-mute man is catnip to lovely young women plot contrivance. Anka is merely the first. Magda (seriously sexy-rebellious Katarzyna Zawadzka) is the next.
When even his ever-hopeful mother treats him as if he’s having a fit when he tries to communicate or reach for something, how this cinema romance trope survives is a mystery for the ages.
Writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca (the Polish import “Splinters”) lets us hear the man’s sense of humor and see the raging hormones that no disease that puts him on the floor or in a wheelchair could suppress.
When his brother visits with a girlfriend, Mateusz can hear what he’s missing out on.
“They made worse noises than I did.”
There aren’t a lot of dramatic incidents in the film, not enough to justify its running time. His interior life isn’t that much different from anyone else’s.
But “Life” is broken into chapters, inter-titles with symbolic signs and Polish words (“Wizard,” how he thought of his father, “Boyfriend,” how he started to think of himself) that hint where it’s going, even if it takes its sweet, overly-familiar time getting there.
For all the turmoil going on around them in Poland, the revolution in attitudes towards the disabled — Mateusz is moved to a mental hospital — were just as dramatic.
And even if we’ve picked up on those clues and recalled the opening device — that “evaluation” by skeptical medical professionals — that doesn’t lessen the impact of the breakthroughs to come.
These scenes are incredibly moving, and you don’t have to have had your first conversation with a cousin suffering from this disease via computer when he was in his 30s, to get a bit choked up at where “Life Feels Good” takes you.
But I do, and did.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Dawid Ogrodnik, Dorota Kolak, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Katarzyna Zawadzka
Credits: Written and directed by Maciej Pieprzyca. An Under the Milky Way release.
Running time: 1:52