LIFF 2010: UPPERDOG review

If Upperdog has anything to teach us - and it hasn't - apparently no matter how scarred your psyche, how much of a self-centred jerk you might be, all it takes is a screenwriter to scare you up a selflessly devoted manic pixie dream girl and you'll be fine. Impeccably produced, full of pretty people weighed down by a full chorus of crippling neuroses, Upperdog obviously means well but it's torpedoed by an unbelievable preachiness that grates unbearably in no time at all.


It's a love story, or rather two at once, between four young people in Oslo. Axel and Yanne are siblings, Asian children separated at a very young age by their respective adoptive parents. Axel is a child of privilege, working for an advertising firm and supported by rich, indulgent parents who hid his sister's existence from him; Yanne was taken in by a less wealthy family and works at a local restaurant.


The siblings are drawn into each other's orbit when Yanne's friend Maria starts working as a maid for Axel's parents, sees the same photo on the wall she's seen in Yanne's room and makes the connection. At the same time Per, a young soldier sent home from Afghanistan after a fatal error in judgement, moves in next to Yanne, complicating things still further.


It's hard to pinpoint precisely where Upperdog begins to go wrong, but it's quite possibly on a losing streak from the start. The opening scene, which shows Alex having an acquaintance seduce his girlfriend to test their relationship, sets him up as heartbroken. It's also the first step towards establishing him as the epitome of the surly, obstreperous manchild and hitting the kind of emotional pitch director Sara Johnsen sticks to from then on.


Not merely Alex; everyone has their one personality trait, and only as much inner life as the story allows. Maria barely has anything beyond her crusade to get Alex to see the error of his ways, save a few passing mentions of a child back home. Alex treats women with disdain, slouches around his parents' house naked, jerks off to porn and lapses into a sulk when confronted about anything significant.


Yanne is consumed by worry over what precisely to do about Axel - break the news to him or not - and furious when she finds out Maria's sleeping with her brother (given Upperdog was directed by a woman, it scores surprisingly poorly on the Bechdel test. Just to mention). And Per, on finding out his moment of madness was immortalised by the same war photographer who followed him round on duty, turns into a stalker out of some misguided idea of quid pro quo.


It's painfully, shockingly reductive, like an episode of some bland, anonymous American teen soap opera jazzed up with extra nudity, sex and pop-psychology. Johnsen's script wants to set everyone straight but she confuses pat life lessons and suffering sainthood for compassion and empathy. Everything gets painted in the broadest strokes possible, and the strange emphasis on English dialogue does no-one any favours. Even the minor characters suffer for it, like the flat, leaden speech from two punks distributing leaflets against the Afghan war with Per's photo on.


No-one elicits any sympathy. For one thing, Johnsen neither writes enough fine detail in to actually convince people she might know what it feels like to live with being adopted, or suddenly discover a sister you never knew you had. In addition she simply doesn't do enough to let anyone grow beyond the archetype that defines them. Axel stays a sullen, self-important jerk long enough his redemption isn't remotely convincing. Maria never becomes anything beyond an angel of mercy. Yanne obsesses over her brother to the point her relationship with Per starts to seem vaguely disturbing. Per himself steps so far beyond normal, rational behaviour in chasing his own demons (and no-one points this out) his eventual redemption rings completely hollow.


It's an attractive looking film, at least, richly coloured, competently directed, but this doesn't really help when the narrative falls so utterly flat. It's technically sound, and the cast handle the dialogue reasonably well, though they can't create plausible, genuinely compelling drama out of such simplistic platitudes. There's simply nothing here you couldn't get from a few hours of mid-afternoon cable television the world over. A younger audience who see themselves in Johnsen's caricatures and want some comfortable, reassuring pablum where they can idolise the four protagonists should be more than happy. For anyone else Upperdog is impossible to recommend.


(Upperdog was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)

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