By Matt Brunson
IN A BETTER WORLD
DIRECTED BY Susanne Bier
STARS Mikael Persbrandt, Ulrich Thomsen
Director Susanne Bier's In a Better World recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which means this Danish drama places a distant second to Melissa Leo's scenery-chewing in The Fighter as the least deserving recipient at this year's ceremony. That's not to say it's a bad movie, but it's hardly satisfying to see the prize go to what's essentially a sincere afterschool special with subtitles.
The subject of bullying that's been prominent in this year's news cycle at least makes the movie topical for stateside audiences. Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed "Ratface" by the thugs at his Danish school, endures daily abuse until new student Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) becomes his protector and friend. Both boys have something in common: Elias' dad Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor estranged from his wife (Tryne Dyrholm), spends a lot of time in Africa, where he treats impoverished locals on the edge of a war zone; Christian's dad Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), who recently lost his wife to cancer, spends a lot of time in London (this character is so underdeveloped that I can't even remember if a reason was given for his frequent U.K. jaunts). When he's around, Anton tries to instill a pacifist nature in both boys, but Christian, full of anger and resentment over his mom's death, resists, instead involving his weak-willed friend in acts of rebellion and retribution that grow increasingly dangerous.
Perhaps had they focused solely on the boys, Bier and scripter Anders Thomas Jensen might have pulled off a sturdy story involving moral quandaries; indeed, this portion of the film generally works, bolstered by excellent work from the two teen actors. Alas, the inclusion of the African sequences not only renders the plotting overly schematic (the parallels between the two halves are often glaringly simplistic) but creates an imbalance that the film never corrects — make no mistake, schoolyard bullying is awful, but it still can't compare to a warlord slicing open the bellies of pregnant women with machetes simply because he can. The final half-hour is the sinker, as certain characters (specifically Anton) are let off the hook, everyone bonds in warm embraces, and life lessons are handed out like candy on Halloween.