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Film Review

The Specials (Hors normes) (2019)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 54min
Directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledan
Written by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano
Starring Vincent Cassel, Reda Kateb, Hélène Vincent

The Specials is a French drama, apparently based on a true story, about two men who work with children and adolescents with autism. It follows the daily struggles of the two shepherds and their respective flocks, focusing on the lives of the two leads and (some) of the kids. There is also a message about the system’s failure to care for the kids; it seems that only the truly devoted volunteers, despite their obvious lack of resources, stand between the youngsters and institutionalization or a life of crime. The Specials is a competently made small-scale film, but, in my opinion, nothing special.

The main problem I have with the film is that, with a few exceptions, I did not really care about the characters or what was happening to them. There are many reasons for this, which include at least the language barrier, the large cast, and the subject matter, which I was not that interested in. Especially in a film like this, I feel the viewer needs an emotional connection to the characters – otherwise one is just watching events unfold that have very little effect. I fully admit that it might be partly my own “fault” for not enjoying The Specials that much – the film was chosen by my girlfriend, and it is probably not something I would have watched otherwise. There are parts of it that are compelling, but those moments are not very frequent. Still, despite my negative tone here, there is something refreshing about watching non-Hollywood films, since Hollywood dominates so much of our media consumption. In that regard The Specials can be considered a tiny bit special.

The two main characters remain somewhat distant even by the end of the film; there is not much effort put into getting the viewer to know them. I am not completely sure if that would have made for a better viewing experience, but I suspect that it could have helped, at least if done well. They are shown to be good people, utterly devoted to helping the kids (who no one else seems to care about much, and thus needing all the help they can get), but – perhaps understandably, given what they do – they do not seem to have lives outside of their work. But that also means that there is very little personality to them that the viewer can attach themselves to. The film makes a slight effort by showing one of the leads fail at half-assedly making romantic connections due to his work demanding almost all his time and focus. A few of the kids also get more of a story to them, and it works better than with the two leads, but I still did not feel much connection to them personally.

I do not have complaints about the acting, but partly that is because the language barrier prevents me from noticing flaws (or excellence for that matter). The two leads are convincing enough, and the kids who get the most screen time seem to be good as well. Technically the film is perfectly adequate; there is nothing spectacular on display as far as I remember, but nothing exceedingly incompetent either. I felt that The Specials is perhaps a bit too long, and definitely too slow – when you are not fully engaged with the material, pacing and length become issues. My complaint about slowness might, again, be highly subjective. There really is not that much of a story here, it is more like a follow-along experience with the characters – which is fine, I suppose, but not very interesting if the characters are not compelling. There is quite a bit of humour in the film, which partly works, and partly does not, but it does not utterly fail at any point, which is a definite plus – this is something most comedies do not achieve.

Overall, The Specials is a movie I would recommend to people who are interested in stories about troubled youths or French film in general. While I did not thoroughly enjoy it, I recognize that it is not a bad movie by any means. Thus, I can see someone rating The Specials much higher, and I would not argue with them about it. There was clearly effort put into the making of this film, and even though it did not completely work for me, the effort is something to applaud. Highlighting the issues around the institutions/system that care for troubled youths is also something that the film gets points on.

Rating: 6.0 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 0

Would I want to rewatch this film? Maybe, but probably not

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