There's nothing fresh about the premise of a grown single man living at home with his mother, but Danish director Mads Matthiesen's first feature, "Teddy Bear," has a unique strategy for rejuvenating the formula. Its lead, real-life bodybuilder Kim Kold, is a hulking mass of biceps and bulging veins, but none of his chiseled features help in his quest for true love. Physically, he dominates the room; emotionally, he's a delicate flower.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. "Teddy Bear" opens at New York's Film Forum on August 22nd.]
Kold first appears as the solitary protagonist, Dennis, as he's on a date with a fellow gym-goer. He finds himself straining to make casual conversation, his central flaw. He only looks relaxed around his mother (Elsebeth Steentoft, in a convincingly stern performance), who maintains a tight rein over her son's lonely existence. When he finds his uncle has essentially purchased a wife from Thailand, Dennis secretly leaves Copenhagen to explore the Thai marketplace for himself, kicking "Teddy Bear" into full gear as Dennis confronts his desires and desperately seeks a match in all the wrong places.
Matthiesen, also the film's screenwriter, establishes Dennis' world with a quiet, gentle touch that relies less on dialogue — since Dennis rarely has the courage to speak up — than on the tension between the character's massive appearance and the world that constantly alienates him. That disconnect grows particularly effective during the Thailand scenes, when Dennis, already a stranger in a strange land, looks even more out of place. In terms of precedent, his journey is most readily comparable to "The Wrestler" by way of "Lost in Translation," but more muted than both.
Dennis' journey to Thailand quickly devolves into a series of misadventures with prostitutes until he finds the girl of his dreams in the place where he probably should have looked all along: the gym. The scenes where Dennis finally manages to find his groove are respectably bittersweet, but they also hold back the material: When it settles into the story of a budding relationship, "Teddy Bear" strains from predictability and gets locked into a formulaic holding pattern. However, Dennis' final confrontation with his mother injects new life into the events and Matthiesen smartly avoids a melodramatic climax in favor of remaining consistent with the movie's persistent understatement.
While Kold's distant gaze nicely conveys Dennis' downbeat state, his physicality becomes the movie's true centerpiece. At the gym, he matches the environment, but everywhere else he comes across as a strange, alien presence. A gigantic physique hides the fragile man beneath and Matthiesen ably follows the journey of that persona as it tunnels through mounds of muscle to reach the surface. In essence, the lion finds his courage.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With the casting gimmickand a sweet, moving narrative, "Teddy Bear" is set to receive strong marks in Sundance's World Competition section. It's a little too low key for larger distributors to take a chance, but should continue receiving acclaim along the international festival circuit and could manage a small U.S. theatrical release further down the line. However, overall commercial prospects are slim.