Family affair

Journey through France fuels sunny Adventures of Felix

If you've ever wondered why the French make such a show of pride in their country, the movie Adventures of Felix provides at least part of the answer. Sweet but no trifle, the film follows the title character (Sami Bouajila) as he hitchhikes from Normandy to Marseilles.

Writer-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau find something gorgeous at nearly every step, from lush tracking shots that drink in the quaint towns built along the English Channel and the Mediterranean, to fields covered in yellow flowers that, as if an afterthought, happen to overlook stately cathedrals in the distance. The film's photography alone is worthy of a dozen travelogues and doesn't even get in the vicinity of Paris (which, presumably, it leaves to Amelie, this week's other love letter from France).

The loveliness of the scenery may be the film's strongest suit, but it's not the only one. Felix's picaresque journey makes him reassess his feelings about family, self-preservation and loyalty, just as the film finds unexpected depths in its central character.

A young, HIV-positive ferryboat sailor, put out of work by the Chunnel, Felix remains a high-spirited fellow. But when he and his schoolteacher boyfriend (Pierre-Loup Rajot) start getting on each other's nerves, Felix finds a pretext for a short getaway. He decides to go to Marseilles to find the father he's never met after discovering some of his mother's old letters.

After buying a rainbow-colored kite, he sets off, but an incident in Rouen casts a shadow over the trip. He witnesses two thugs assailing a bystander, then gets chased and beaten himself in a nerve-wracking sequence. Being gay and "Arab-looking," Felix's concern about prejudice keeps him from going to the police, but his conscience gnaws at him.

Otherwise, Bouajila gives Felix an undeniable, laid-back charisma, as he sings to himself along country roads and calls "Come out, sun" when he tries to sunbathe. Ducastel and Martineau work to keep him from simply being a bland bon vivant no matter how generous and cheerful he tends to be. On the road to Marseilles he cheats on his boyfriend and steals a car to impress a love-struck high school student. The film displays Felix's character flaws as matter-of-factly as it shows him taking his morning regimen of HIV drugs. He's not a martyr nor a saint, but an affable young man with virtues, frailties and, in a droll running joke, an addiction to a cheesy soap opera called "Lap of Luxury."

Though Felix is en route to find his biological father, fate begins assembling a surrogate family along the way, as he forms brief but meaningful connections with pick-ups and good Samaritans. If the film's familial implications were too subtle, it puts actual titles before each episode, like "My Little Brother," "My Grandmother," etc. One guy gives him a ride, takes him for a quickie in the woods, then shows him how to put shallot vinegar on his poison ivy rash. He's identified as "My Cousin," and I'm not at all sure what that suggests about extended families in France.

The other relationships are chaste but each involves a little sexuality. The widowed "Grandmother" (a feisty actress called Patachou) gives Felix a room for a night and wistfully glimpses him undressed, while "Sister" Isabelle (Ariane Ascaride) has three children, each of whom she's delivering to a different father. The teenager whom Felix takes joyriding is the "Little Brother"; he resents Felix's refusal to consider him sexually mature. The supporting ensemble gives memorably natural performances without offering contrived quirks.

The film includes a political message, as Felix realizes the importance of bearing witness to the crime, but it's mostly a breezy comedy, its tone matching the groovy, mellow songs played for the opening and closing credits. It's actually a kind of relief to have Adventures of Felix come to town after this year's other French export, The Closet. That film was funny and harmless but still had surprisingly conservative views toward France's gay population. Felix fills in the blanks left by the other movie, and in charting Felix's adventures, it reveals the fullness of life on the other side of The Closet's door.??