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Susanne Bier's Oscar-winner In a Better World explores complexities of bullying

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There’s no need to run behind mommy’s skirt anymore. It looks as if politicians and human rights activists are finally taking up the cause of the trombone-playing bookworm with the funny haircut who packs his lunch every day. Everywhere you turn, it seems like someone is kick-starting a new anti-bullying campaign. There’s an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights in New Jersey, mandatory anti-bullying curriculum in Vallejo, Calif., and anti-bullying summits at the White House. Some public libraries are even stocking up on children’s books like Don’t be a Bully, Billy.

Here in Texas, Houston state Senator John Whitmire’s anti-bullying bill that would make school districts responsible for keeping Timmy’s head out of the toilet passed the Senate last week.And while it’s smooth sailing for Timmy now, I can’t help but wonder where the hell all of you were back in 1991 when Jesse Davila, the only 7th grader I knew who could grow a full goatee overnight, was handing me my ass at least once a week. Where was the piece of paper saving me from that wedgie, swirly, or greasy finger in the middle of my Salisbury steak?

The lack of state assistance I received helps me sympathize with 12-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), the tormented kid at the center of Danish director Susanne Bier’s Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning foreign-language film In a Better World. While World takes a more multifaceted approach to the issue, it’s evident from the uncompromising themes — whether they’re set on a playground or in a suffering Third World country — Bier has plenty to say about humanity’s penchant for violence and intimidation.

Unlike the students of today, Elias isn’t protected by any sociopolitical crusade by the educational system. His safeguard comes in the form of Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a new boy who has moved from London to Denmark with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) after the death of his mother. Expressing his grief through anger and aggression, Christian is fearless when confronted by the campus bully Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm), a schoolyard thug Elias’ mom Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) describes as a “sadistic psychopath.”

“If you hit him, he hits you, and then you hit him, and then it never ends,” Christian’s concerned father explains when Christian is questioned by cops after beating Sofus with a bicycle pump. “Don’t you see? That’s how wars are started.”

Christian’s response: “Not if you hit hard enough the first time.”

Elias’ passiveness can be traced to his father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a good-hearted doctor splitting his time between home and a refugee camp in Africa where he must come face to face with the real bully of the narrative. A psychotic, machete-wielding warlord known as Big Man (Odiege Matthew) is the reason pregnant women with sliced bellies are turning up at the clinic. Anton’s Hippocratic Oath is tested when Big Man himself comes to the campsite in need of medical attention. Screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who has worked with Bier before on dramas such as After the Wedding and Brothers, creates strong parallels between the two worlds Anton inhabits. The corresponding scenes become increasingly significant as Jensen explores these different levels of hostility.

Besides Big Man, Anton is met with cruelty at home when Lars (Kim Bodina), a jerk auto mechanic from the area, slaps him around in front of Elias and Christian, whose friendship has begun to grow into something more treacherous. Anton’s lesson on civility falls on deaf ears as the boys begin to plot the best way to enact revenge.

At times, it’s hard to pinpoint where Christian’s vengeful nature spirals out of control. His character is believable in the first half of the film as a kid acting out impulsively, but a transformation into something else is hard to swallow. While Bier and Jensen like to occasionally spoon-feed us some of the emotion behind the moral dilemmas raised during World’s 119-minute runtime, during the final third of the film scenes grow obvious and melodramatic.

Despite it’s heavy-handedness in the last act, Bier directs with fascinating awareness of her characters and with grace for the moments of compassion between two families trying to understand how humanity can be so merciless. Questions may not be answered, but Bier’s recognition of just how complicated life can get keeps us believing her directorial decisions come from a place of insight.

 

In a Better World

Dir. Susanne Bier; writ. Anders Thomas Jensen; feat. Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Kim Bodina, Simon Maagaard Holm. (R)


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