If only we had doc options for all the common Hollywood comedy situations. The Special Need fills this hole for the virginity-loss premise, which has been tackled by teen movies for decades and, taking it to the extreme, with sexless 40-year-olds, as well. Here we meet a 29-year-old virgin named Enea and follow him on an intercontinental mission to have him deflowered. His reason for being a late bloomer stems from his autism and, as we see when he’s hitting on women in the street, his overcompensating courage matched with underwhelming game. He also doesn’t have a sense of what league he’s in, nor does he have a basis for what to look for other than fashion magazine-quality beauties.
Fortunately, Enea has a friend in filmmaker Carlo Zoratti, who decided to document the adventure of the disabled man’s quest for sex. Starting out in Italy, where they can’t find a prostitute willing, let alone a prospective partner who doesn’t charge for it, Carlo, Enea and their other friend, Alex, drive north through Europe in the attempt to find a way to get the job done legally, safely and respectfully. Zoratti doesn’t film the plan and journey in the way you’d expect. There’s no introductory narration telling us of the objective, no breaking of the fourth wall to acknowledge that a film is even being made. Instead he let’s the story unfold seemingly naturally, albeit with clear indication that this is more docudrama than documentary, and scenes, if not the entire picture, are for the most part orchestrated.
The Special Need is the kind of movie that you immediately want answers to, as far as what’s real and what’s staged. They tend to be good film fest Q&A selections because audiences are compelled to understand how they were made. But as I realize thanks to the filmmakers not being present for the SXSW screenings, it doesn’t really matter. We can just enjoy the story that’s on screen and come to our own conclusions about it. We can be perceptive and spot when Carlo is asking the other characters questions in a way that subtly drops in exposition and pushes the conversations and action in the direction he wants. And ultimately we can determine that the story and the mission might not even be Enea’s so much as Carlo and Alex’s.
It is also a film that functions more broadly as an exploration of what people desire. Enea may have a disability, but he’s hardly more confused about sex and love and what he wants than most human beings. And his friends wind up going through their own dramatic bouts of uncertainty, wondering if what they’re doing out on the road is truly of benefit to Enea in the long run. Did he even ask for this, or was he already sufficiently happy? Isn’t it just really just a road movie centered on male bonding but driven by the unimportant end goal for one of those men? There’s not a whole lot of material that isn’t dictated by the narrow task and premise, but what there is shows us a main character with plenty of interests, positive traits, reasons for someone to love him, whether it be a female partner, a close male friend or a movie viewer.
Spattered with visual and verbal innuendo, it’s a movie about sexual urges and urgency but not in an informational way. There are other documentaries on surrogates and therapists for the disabled detailing the logistics not found here. And there’s the wonderfully warm Monica & David to show us how romance can happen for people with a mental handicap. It’s not really important that the primary subject in The Special Need is autistic. This is a sweet, tender and identifiably true portrait of a person simply trying to make a connection and find love. The title indicates a double meaning, but I think for the movie’s universality there’s only one meaning that matters here.