French actor Omar Sy stars in an inspirational film about a couple of most unlikely friends

By Rennie Dyball
Updated July 26, 2012 04:00 PM

Amid all the sad news and tragic headlines this summer, it’s about time for a positive, life-affirming story.

Turns out, there’s one headed for a theater near you.

The Intouchables is an award-winning, box office record-breaking French film that gets its wide release in U.S. theaters Friday. And it packs quite the uplifting punch.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables follows a paralyzed French aristocrat named Philippe (Francois Cluzet) who hires an unlikely caretaker – Driss, a charismatic young con artist (Omar Sy) – and they form a unique friendship.

This alternately hilarious and tear-jerking movie has already become the highest grossing foreign language film in North America for 2012, earned millions overseas, and racked up nine 2012 César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars. (Madonna reportedly rented out an entire theater to screen it!) So what’s all the fuss about?

1. It’s as uplifting as they come
It’s hard not to be captivated by this touching story, which is based on Abdel Sellou’s real-life experiences. Omar Sy – who plays Driss, Sellou’s movie likeness – would agree. “I thought the role was very funny, very touching, and very unusual,” Sy tells PEOPLE of taking on the project. And he would know, sharing certain key similarities with the character. “I come from the same underprivileged suburbs of Paris as Driss, and I’m also the son of immigrant parents. Usually when you see characters from our background represented they have a very negative attitude. This was the first time I’d seen someone like this represented as making a positive contribution to the story and to the world. It was inspiring.”

2. Bring on the happy tears
“We actually see a lot of people crying and smiling when they leave the theater. That’s an unusual combination and the ultimate compliment,” says Sy. You’ll laugh through the tears, too, adds Sellou: “Going to see this movie will make you laugh and feel that everything is possible, even when everything seems lost.” Beyond co-starring in the film, Sy and Cluzet (who plays the disabled Philippe) formed a special bond as well. “I don’t have any formal training, so I learn from the people I work with,” says Sy. “Francois didn’t just teach me, he changed me. I can actually divide my life into before I met Francois and after. He taught me so much about acting and life, and he did it all from a wheelchair without ever moving.” Tearing up yet?

3. It may change your mind about foreign films
While some Americans tend to shy away from movies with subtitles, this film could be poised to bridge the gap. “Don’t feel this is going to be a long, boring film, or one that you won’t relate to,” says Sy. “It’s the story of a beautiful friendship, filled with great humor, great emotion, and great music. Who cannot relate to that?” The Intouchables “tells a universal story,” adds Sellou. “It could easily have been an American movie.”

4. Omar Sy is ridiculously easy on the eyes

This guy is hot in any language. “What can I say about Omar Sy? Unlike me, he is tall, and an excellent dancer,” jokes Sellou. “He managed to transform the Shrek that I am, as a real person, into an exceptional and realistic film character … with his crazy dance moves, his handsome face, and his athlete’s body.”

5. There’s a built-in beach read
You Changed My Life, Sellou’s memoir about his relationship with Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, is a breezy but substantial read befitting of a beach chair. And the book was a long time coming. “Philippe has been asking me to write my story for years and years, but my answer has always been no,” says Sellou. “I didn’t really see myself as a writer; that was, until I actually realized that writing my own memoir would be the most beautiful way to thank Philippe for all that he has given to me, to my life.”