Come As You Are (Hasta La Vista), a quirky, heart-warming film, may just become the surprise hit of the summer. It's in Flemish (with a Spanish sub-title just to confuse us) and is about three disabled young men trying to lose their virginity. In terms of subject matter and language, the film is decidedly arthouse, but Geoffrey Enthoven's polished direction, Gerd Schelfhout's impressive cinematography and the easy humour add some mainstream gloss.
The film is inspired by the real-life sexual experiences of American Asta Philpot, born with Arthrogryposis. Philip (Robrecht Vanden Thoren), paralysed from the neck down, has heard about a Spanish brothel catering to the sexual needs of those with special needs. He tells his two friends, partially sighted Josef (Tom Audenaert) and Lars (Gilles De Schrijver) whose aggressive brain tumour has confined him to a wheelchair, that this is the chance of a lifetime to lose their virginity.
The three persuade their parents to allow them to travel together across France and Spain, supposedly on a wine-tasting tour. They arrange for a nurse to accompany them and drive the specially equipped mini-bus. Then Lars is told that his tumour has dangerously increased in size and his anxious parents refuse to let him travel. Undeterred the friends decide to go anyway without their parents' consent. The nurse they had hired gets cold feet and, to the boys' dismay, his replacement is the heavy-set, scowling Claude (Isabelle de Hertogh) who turns out to be female and speaks only French.
Inevitably, nothing happens as the boys had hoped but they also find pleasure when they least expect it. There are various poignant moments but, wisely, Enthoven refuses to give in to sentimentality. The trio act with laddish bravado, lusting, hopelessly, after attractive women. Philip is brittle, angry and initially unpleasant towards Claude, who he nicknames 'mammoth'. He is also prone to petulant outbursts and to rage at people for no reason - in one memorable scene he nearly gets beaten up after insulting fellow tourists at a winery because they are Dutch. Watching a beefy skinhead try to upset a paraplegic's wheelchair, you're torn between whether to laugh or cry.
Lars is also conflicted. He puts on a brave face but is by turn angry or in despair at the thought of his imminent death and Josef is sweet-natured but lacks courage. I don't think that you will meet three more unlikely heroes in a contemporary film. Ultimately, though, it is their frailties that allow us to root for them. Come As You Are features striking performances and has already been well received at the 2012 Montréal World Film Festival, where it won three awards including the prestigious Grand Prix des Amériques as well as at the European Film Awards, winning the Audience Award.
UK release 7 June 2013