Though indeed the unlikely true story of how Algeria competed in the Winter Olympics in the cross-country skiing category, Good Luck Sam (Good Luck Algeria) is less a Maghrebi version of Cool Runnings than an exploration of the struggles of growing up between two nations and cultures; the “Algerian” skier in question turns out to be a French-born, second-generation immigrant who grew up in the Alps, speaks no Arabic and who hasn’t been to his father’s country of birth for years.
Shorts director and occasional actor Farid Bentoumi here transforms the story of his own brother, Noureddine, into a fascinating hybrid of comedy and drama, immigrant tale and underdog sports movie that, despite its sometimes familiar stylings, is still unlike most other films out there. (Noureddine competed in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, though the pic’s exact timeframe isn’t pinned down.) Good Luck Sam opened decently if not spectacularly in France in a crowded field in late March and should be of interest to festivals that have no hang-ups about programming intelligent films with crowd-pleasing elements. As an compensatory arthouse marketing bonus, Good Luck is without a doubt the most unlikely filmic concoction yet that Belgium’s maestros of social-realist misery and redemption, the Dardenne brothers, have been associated with as producers.
An unlikely winner.
Samir (Sami Bouajila), or Sam for short, runs a small company that makes wooden skis in the shadow of the Alps, together with a former French ski champion, Stephane Duval (Franck Gastambide), with the latter lending his name to the company for marketing purposes, though his last victory occurred at least a decade ago. When a major deal with a Swedish ski star falls through, the company falls on hard times, with the funny go-getter Steph and the more serious Sam hatching a crazy plan to raise money to save the company from going bankrupt and simultaneously promote their superior products: have Sam participate in the Winter Olympics but as an Algerian, since it would be much easier to qualify since there’s no competition.
The film’s first two acts are almost exclusively set in France and in French and span several months, as the company’s problems go from bad to worse and then Stephane has to coach and prep Sam, a fortysomething, for his Olympic qualification rounds. From the get-go, it’s clear that this is not just an unlikely underdog story or an against-all-odds sports film, with a lot of time devoted to Sam’s relationships with Steph and especially his elderly father (Bouchakor Chakor Djaltia) and pregnant wife, Bianca (Chiara Mastroianni), who is French-Italian.
But neither is the film a family drama in the strict sense of the word, as it explores how different characters relate to the countries they’re from and Sam having to make a serious effort to connect with Algeria and its institutions, red tape and locals (all the while speaking only the language of the former oppressors). In the film’s final third, the pace, nicely modulated by editor Jean-Christophe Bouzy, slows down considerably as Sam finally goes to Algeria for a day to visit the corrupt national Olympic Committee, who should theoretically give him a training grant of $20,000 (which could save his company), and he also stops by the ancestral village of his proud, flag-waving father.
Far from the burning car wrecks and increasing radicalism of some of the French suburbs, Bentoumi follows in the footsteps of filmmakers such as Mohamed Hamidi (Homeland) and co-star and director in his own right Gastambide (Porn in the Hood, Pattaya), who look at issues surrounding immigration through a more benign and accessible prism. However, this doesn’t mean that Sam doesn’t face some difficult questions. The fascinating paradox at the heart of the nimble screenplay, co-written by the director with Noe Debre (who works on Audiard’s films) and Gaelle Mace (Number One Fan, Grand Central), is that the goal behind reconnecting with Sam’s Algerian roots as a sports figure is to save his company, presence and (future) family in France. A better expression of the duality inherent in growing up between two cultures would be hard to find. That said, a question of land ownership back in Algeria does momentarily threaten to hijack the proceedings before everything is rather awkwardly ironed out.
Significantly, neither France nor Algeria are ever idealized. In Europe, small-time businesses are threatened by corporate decisions and banks are pitiless money machines, while in North Africa, Sam runs into distant cousins literally called Jihad and Ousama. This greatly ups the overall complexity of the film and anchors the wannabe athlete’s torn loyalties in a recognizable reality. Isabelle Dumas’ cinematography similarly has an eye for not overidealizing the locations while also managing to keep the film from becoming a depressing, color-drained affair (no small feat since she’s shooting either in the snow or in the arid Maghreb, with Morocco substituting for Algeria).
French-Tunisian thespian Bouajila (Omar Killed Me, Days of Glory) is one of France’s best-kept acting secrets, and he here convincingly slinks into the cross-country skiing costume. Bouajila’s rapport with his business partner/trainer, wife and father are spiky and complex without having to resort to preachy dialogue, and he’s also physically convincing as a sports enthusiast in early middle age bent on becoming an athlete. The actor reportedly did most of the skiing himself, with Noureddine Bentoumi functioning as a body double in just a few shots.
Mastroianni’s character is almost an ideal spouse but also a recognizable human being, alternating between offering bedrock support and welcome if perhaps unpleasant reality checks. Her binational heritage, however, is more hinted at than actually discussed or shown. And as Sam’s proud, stubborn and patriotic father, Djaltia’s character functions in a similar way, offering warmth as well as wisdom, such as when he suggests that the larger question of integration (in France) wasn’t as important to him as simply offering his children more possibilities.
Production companies: Les Films Velvet, Les Films du fleuve, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Franck Gastambide, Chiara Mastroianni, Helene Vincent, Bouchakor Chakor Djaltia, Coralie Avril, Fadila Belkebla
Director: Farid Bentoumi
Screenplay: Farid Bentoumi, Noe Debre, Gaelle Mace
Producer: Frederic Jouve
Co-producers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Director of photography: Isabelle Dumas
Production designer: David Faivre
Costume designer: Melanie Gaulthier
Editor: Jean-Christophe Bouzy
Music: Robin Foster
Casting: Antoine Carrard
Sales: Films Distribution
Not rated, 91 minutes