There is an infectious reality that is not accidental in "Gabrielle," Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault's story of first love for an engaging young couple, who happen to have intellectual disabilities.
Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, the film's star and arguably its muse, is the reason. A charismatic young woman with Williams syndrome, which causes some developmental limitations and enhances others (quite often musical abilities), she caught Archambault's eye as the writer-director was researching her idea for the film.
As Archambault has said about her second feature, Gabrielle changed the nature of the film from being about mentally and physically challenged adults and their desire for love to a movie made with them.
Casting Marion-Rivard in the title role was a risk that paid off, giving the film its authenticity, also its imperfections, which are easy enough to live with.
Much of this ode to the human spirit unfolds in a Montreal choir room at Muse, an arts center for the mentally challenged. Remi (Vincent-Guillaume Otis) mans the piano and directs the singers. Martin (Alexandre Landry) is clearly the star. It's just as clear that he and Gabrielle have a connection.
The difficulty comes when they try to act on their feelings. Both live at a residential center run by a progressive social worker named Laurent (Benoît Gouin). When Martin and Gabrielle are discovered in bed, the first of many dominoes begins to fall.
Families are quickly involved, not to stop Gabrielle and Martin but to set ground rules. Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is Gabrielle's devoted older sister, who's trying to balance her feelings of responsibility for her sibling and a long-distance relationship with boyfriend Raphael (Sébastien Ricard), equally sensitive and socially conscious, running a school for impoverished kids in India.
Martin's mother, Claire (Marie Gignac), is as close as we get to a villain. She creates the central conflict in the film when she pulls Martin out of the choir and the residential home to stop the relationship between her son and the young woman from developing.
One of the film's flaws is actually how good-hearted everyone is. Claire's biggest sin is her narrow-mindedness and overprotectiveness. Around the edges is another problematic mother, Gabrielle's. Suzanne (Isabelle Vincent) is an accomplished musician, though somewhat distant from both her daughters, it seems.
There are two journeys vying for attention. One is Gabrielle's growing insistence that she can be independent — the loss of Martin has galvanized her. The other is Les Muse itself, the choir practicing to participate in a major music festival with one of Canada's stars. Again, reality elbows its way in with popular Quebec singer Robert Charlebois and one of his hit songs, "Ordinaire," playing a pivotal role in Muses' performance.
What Archambault has done best is capture the unaffected innocence of Gabrielle, the filmmaker letting the camera follow her at just the right distance so that nothing feels forced. Landry, the rising Canadian star who portrays Gabrielle's boyfriend, brings an innocence and tenderness to the role that is as engaging as Gabrielle's sheer joie de vivre. Watching their unfiltered affection for each other grow despite the barriers gives the film an honest sentimentality. From the love scenes to the frustrations, nothing is overplayed.
Though the movie wears its agenda on its sleeve, the music and the cast, many of them members of the real Les Muses, as Marion-Rivard was for a time, are simply so charming that it makes "Gabrielle" hard to resist.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality
Runnng time: 1 hour, 43 minutes; French with English subtitles