A winningly transgressive black comedy that skewers PC correctness toward the disabled, “The Art of Negative Thinking” plays like Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sparkily written yarn, about a wheelchair-bound accident victim who challenges the pieties of a therapy group for the handicapped, provides a cathartic message about the need to accept reality. Following its warm reception at the Karlovy Vary festival, Norwegian writer-director Bard Breien’s brave burlesque of positivism should be a crowd-pleaser at other fests. Pic also has niche theatrical chances, even Stateside, in the hands of the right distrib.
Opening credits sequence sets the stage for an epic battle of wills between domineering National Health psychologist Tori (Kjersti Holmen), a champion of the positive approach to life, and thirtysomething rebel Geirr (Fridtjov Saheim), who finds nothing positive at all about life in a wheelchair. Tori is even writing a book about her philosophy, and comes armed with stock phrases like, “Small changes lead to big changes.” She urges clients to focus on solutions, not problems.
Tori’s treatment group is composed of ever-smiling blonde beauty Marta (Marian Saastad Ottesen), who became a paraplegic after a climbing accident; her self-absorbed but guilt-ridden boyfriend, Gard (Henrik Mestad), who failed to secure the rope that led to her fall; and Asbjorn (Per Schaaning), a middle-aged stroke victim seething with pent-up anger.
There’s also Lillemor (Kari Simonsen), a whining sixtyish divorcee in a neck brace. Because she has absolutely nothing positive to contribute to the meetings, Lillemor is constantly handed the “shitbag” — a little tea cozy into which group members are meant to spew their “difficult emotions.”
Meanwhile, across town at the spacious home of Geirr and his wife, Ingvild (Kirsti Eline Torhaug), positive energy is in short supply. Paralyzed and impotent from a traffic accident, Geirr has yet to come to terms with his fate. Blocking out his distraught wife, he tries to distract himself with drugs and alcohol or by watching war movies and listening to Johnny Cash albums.
In a desperate attempt to save her and Geirr’s relationship and sanity, Ingvild invites Tori’s group to visit, in the hopes that some of the latter’s positive therapeutics may work on hubby. Pic’s remaining hour or so, entirely set in the couple’s home, shows the collision between two opposing life views with wit and audacity. With its ups and downs, an electric stair lift becomes a dramatic marker in the shenanigans.
Pic includes some barbs directed at the Norwegian state, but the issues it addresses are universal. These include how severe handicaps affect every aspect of daily life for the disabled and their loved ones — from frustrating physical challenges, through sexual and mental health, to fear of loneliness and dependency.
First-time filmer Breien manages to sustain the darkly comic mood throughout, using acerbic dialogue (“I don’t like women who are into cripples,” Geirr sarcastically remarks to his wife) and cleverly chosen rock/country music extracts. Smart production design underlines the physical challenges the characters face in everyday life, both comic and poignant.
Ensemble cast is first-rate, with performances treading a delicate balance between naturalism and stylization, yet managing to engage viewers’ sympathy by sidestepping easy stereotypes. Special praise goes to Saheim, as the embattled Geirr, who teaches his unwelcome guests the “art of negative thinking.”
Tech credits are top-notch, with special mention going to the crisp camerawork of Gaute Gunnari and pacey editing by Zaklina Stojcevska.
Produced by Maipo, the production company responsible for the “Elling” trilogy, pic is branded in end credits as Maipo Minimal #1, basically an opportunity for new talent to work on challenging themes within a low budget.