He’s handsome. His eyes, dark and intense, reflect a curious enthusiasm about the people and events buzzing around him. But his body is ravaged by the cerebral palsy that’s haunted him since birth. His name is Mateusz (David Ogrodnik), and he’s the wheelchair-bound protagonist of “Life Feels Good,” Maciej Pieprzyca’s supremely moving, brilliantly acted masterpiece.
As Pieprzyca’s film begins, we watch Mateusz stare down a stone-faced medical board. The committee’s mission? To decide whether the twenty-something man is anything more than an idiot. He’s not. He’s in there — clever, irreverent, and passionate. But his self-expression is bound and gagged by a prison of flesh.
Mateusz lifts a contorted hand, its fingers jerking open and closed in unpredictable bursts. Incoherent moans escape from between his lips. He pulls his body, snake-like, across the floor, and howls with glee after finding his mother’s missing brooch hidden beneath a couch. Alas, others can’t decipher his struggle to share the discovery. His flailing limbs are restrained, and his mouth is silenced by a spoon forced between teeth.
The notion of our bodies betraying us – of skin and bone deteriorating while the mind remains lucid – is among the most primal of fears. Director David Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “Videodrome”) is a master at reminding us that our flesh will one day deteriorate into either disease or dust. Similarly, author Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel “Johnny Got His Gun” forced us to ponder being trapped as a living brain. The book’s hero exists only on the inside. Synapses fire within the cerebrum of his war-torn body, even after appendages and senses are ripped away.
“Life Feels Good” is the latest artful exploration of this involuntary sensory deprivation… a fate, perhaps, that is worse than death. But the film’s theme of isolation is also surrounded by a sense of amused invigoration. Mateusz uses hilarious self-deprecation as a tool to endure this repression. And the inability to articulate his fierce intelligence, or walk amongst those whose daily routines he views from a window, makes his thoughts and feelings more compellingly intense. Thankfully, we experience his life only vicariously. But we empathize with his heartbreak, physical agony, fury, and erotic awakening.
Through voice-over, Mateusz shares his unenviable life story. We watch him as a child, lifting colored blocks from a table while propped upright in a wheelchair. He gazes at a pipe-shaped tube grasped within his hand, and we see mental gears turning, despite his therapist’s declaration that “It’s a vegetable.” Not “he.” It. His mother (Dorota Kolak) disagrees, assured that beneath the flailing limbs and guttural grunts is a passionate son who craves to be acknowledged. From a park stroller, she observes as Mateusz blows air from his mouth in furious bursts. Give me release. Let me burst. Hear me.
With no means of externalizing thoughts, Mateusz treats the constant surges of incoming stimuli, rather amusingly, as a school curriculum. He refers to quiet days of watching neighbors from a window as “my social education.” Evenings of stargazing act as his “science course.” But he proudly declares “anatomy” his favorite class. Privileged with cleavage-sightings offered by women unaware that he has the capacity to admire their charms, Mateusz proclaims that “Tits are God’s greatest invention.” Without means of autonomy, he learns most of these life lessons staring into the streets from an upstairs window, observing the loves, faces, injustices, and daily routines occurring below. Unable to dive into this physical sea of motion that others take for granted, Mateusz perceives these human images as exotic and unattainable.
With his grungy wife-beater t-shirt and disheveled manner, Mateusz’s alcoholic father (Arkadiusz Jakubik) is clearly a troubled soul. But however flawed, the patriarch offers his disabled son unconditional love – and an example of persistence. Gathering his family around the dinner table, Dad struggles to open a coconut for dinner. When smaller tools don’t work, he stick with it – eventually smashing the near-impenetrable shell with a hammer.
Later, Mateusz is committed to a group home for the mentally disabled, where he falls deeply in love with a free-spirited volunteer caregiver (Katarzyna Zawadzka). There’s an ethereal, hypnotic scene in which the uninhibited young woman whirls Mateusz’ wheelchair in circles. Her face is angelic, beaming back at Mateusz, as both characters whip into a giddy, dizzy spiral. And when well-intended nurses notice that Mateusz has been biting his lips, their drastic medical intervention is among the most awful, cringe-worthy moments we’ve seen onscreen in a very long while.
Humming in the background of “Life Feels Good” is the question of whether or not Mateusz’s thoughts and feelings will be granted an outlet. Peipryca ultimately gives us an answer. Until then, however, he provides us access to a fascinating alternate reality. In a way, suggests Pieprzyca, Mateusz’s very deprivation of life’s most basic rituals allows him to view them as supremely magical moments. Perhaps our seemingly humdrum existence is a spectacular miracle that we’ve long since taken for granted.
However, don’t mistake “Life Feels Good” as another “inspirational” film about our need to embrace life and cheer on disabled underdogs. There are moments of ghastly horror and gut-wrenching heartbreak. But don’t be turned off by the prospect of Mateusz’s story being a depressing downer, either. Pieprzyca knows when to tickle us with tinges of humor to counteract the pathos. And even at its most heartbreaking, as when two young soul-mates touch fingers through a door-crack for the last time, we’re so engaged in the film’s vivid story that it’s easy to weather these tragic passages.
“Life Feels Good” is intensely emotional… but it’s also fascinating on more pragmatic levels. The younger Mateusz is played by Kamil Tkacz, a role handed off to David Ogrodnik as the character reaches maturity. Neither actor is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but both give seamless illusions of this debilitating condition, with all of its uncontrollable tics and uncoordinated movements. More importantly, both convey a struggle of the human will to transcend it.
“Life Feels Good” isn’t really about disability. It’s about the supreme human need for self-expression. Its implications reach from the suburban homes of ignored teenagers to the lonely apartments of any big city. We all want to be heard. But more importantly, we must empathize with those voiceless souls like Mateusz that so desperately yearn to tell their stories and connect with the human race.