A busy city centre a night. A young woman runs recklessly, bumping into anyone who gets in her way. She appears to be fleeing something but is brought to the ground by an older Muslim man. As he keeps hold of her she gradually calms down.
This is not a crime thriller nor a chase movie, but the opening scene of the Specials (awful English title, folks) the new film by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, best known for making The Intouchables back in the day. Indeed the previews are much more interested in this than in the star, the great Vincent Cassel.
Like The Untouchables, this film is a blast and shows a great sympathy for people coping with a debilitating illness. However, while The Intouchables occasionally gave the impression that we could overcome racism if only black people were a bit nicer to their irritable bosses, this one is much grimmer and bleaker.
The woman in the opening is one of the Specials (I really hate that title), young people who have been designated “problem kids”, not least because most of them are somewhere on the autism spectrum. The Muslim is Malik (Reda Kateb), who like his Jewish friend Bruno (Cassel) runs a non-profit organisation which tries to offer the kids some sort of opportunities in life. Malik’s and Bruno’s different religions are noted, but there’s no attempt to labour the point.
As the film proceeds, we are introduced to a couple of the kids. Valentin wears a boxer’s helmet, as when he is agitated he has a tendency to smash his head against the wall. He is assigned to Dylan, a new carer who is permanently late. It is sometimes unclear whether Dylan is a helper or in need of help, but he seems to get through to Valentin in a way that no-one else can.
Then there is Joseph (played by Benjamin Lesieur, an actor with autism), one of Bruno’s first charges, who has just landed an unpaid internship at a washing machine victory. There is one slight problem. To reach the factory, he must travel four stops on the train, but every time he comes near to the emergency chain he feels compelled to pull it. This does not amuse the railway staff.
Actually, there’s more than one problem. Joseph is diligent and very good at his job. He is particuarly fond of his co-worker Brigitte, to whom he shows affection in the best way he knows – by smelling the back of her neck and asking if he can lay his head on her shoulder and see her socks. For some reason, Brigitte is weirded out by this.
Scenes of Valentin, Dylan and Joseph are interspersed with group meetings to which they travel in a rickety mini van. Here we see a range of people with different problems, which are often concerned with self control and how they are expected to behave in polite society. Most clearly have some sort of migration background, and quite a few are women. Its a shame that after the opening chase, most of the women only appear in the group scenes and we don’t learn more about their individual histories.
Meanwhile, Bruno tries, largely unsuccessfully, to build a life outside his work. In the evenings, he trades his NY baseball cap for a kippah and attends a series of first dates organised for him by friends – what someone refers to as a Jewish tinder. In each case he is interrupted by a phone call calling him out to deal with a crisis. When he puts his phone on flight mode, someone turns up to drag him away from the restaurant, leaving his exasperated date alone at the table.
The work is almost impossible, and places a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, but even this limited offer is under threat. The non-profits are being investigated by the authorities for not providing trained carers. These would be the same authorities which are unable or unwilling to provide decent training or to offer any alternative to kids who have endured a life time of abuse.
Mistakes happen, and the kids are put into danger, but this is clearly the result of underfunding, and there is nothing that Bruno and Malik can do on top of what they are already doing. So, when it comes to a showdown with the investigators, Bruno vents at them with righteous rage.
The film offers no solution – indeed it seems to suggest that unless the system is radically overhauled, no solution is possible. It is, instead, a tribute to people who do thankless work under impossible circumstances. That it depicts truly tragic circumstances without ever losing its sense of humour makes it all the more remarkable.