Since when did it become cute to be suicidal? The latest in a long line of “Harold and Maude”-lin coming-of-agers to feature a misfit adorably determined to call it quits, “Coconut Hero” looks and sounds just like a dozen other emo teen-targeted dramedies, right down to its self-pitying protagonist (newcomer Alex Ozerov), a more-desirable-than-he-realizes “Perks of Being a Wallflower”-esque outcast who’s spared the inconvenience of offing himself when doctors discover a walnut-sized tumor in his brain. The fewer movies (of any sort) you’ve seen, the more likely you are to fall for such shtick, making this weepie ideal for young sensitive types. But even for jaded auds, this ersatz Sundance indie (unveiled in Munich) starts to look impressive the instant one recognizes the all-American imitation was made in Canada by a couple of Germans.
So how did Tel Aviv-born Florian Cossen and Teuton co-writer Elena von Saucken come to deliver an English-language, Fox Searchlight-style tearjerker? The son of a German diplomat, Cossen moved regularly as a child, supplying a diverse cultural diet that has since come to inform his creative output. (His debut, “The Day I Was Not Born,” was a family-secrets mystery set in Buenos Aires.) Cossen spent a number of his formative years in a small Canadian town not unlike Faintville, where “Coconut Hero” takes place, and the film serves as a kind of homage to that folksy place — and the Hollywood high-school movie at large. You know the kind: where the opening credits are stenciled by hand, and where self-aware teen narrators behave as if John Hughes might be directing their lives.
Surely that’s what 16-year-old Mike Tyson (“not the boxer, a different one,” baby-faced Ozerov needlessly volunteers via voiceover) was thinking when he decided to open his own story with the muzzle of a rifle pressed to his forehead. Not cute, although Cossen is hardly the first director to treat a tongue-in-cheek suicide attempt as a short-cut way of announcing his protagonist’s life needs a drastic overhaul. Mike Tyson is a conscientious kid: He spreads a plastic tarp on the floor and leaves a note instructing his single mom (Krista Bridges) to feed the fish before trying to blow his brains out.
The attempt fails, and instead of sympathy, Mike Tyson — who has a habit of referring to himself by his full name, as if convinced the joke will get better with repetition — receives the ultimate humiliation: The day his pre-planned obituary runs in the paper, his overbearing mom orders him back to class with a bandage wrapped around his head wound. Mike Tyson can’t catch a break: At school, he’s teased by a group of kids six years his junior, while at the hospital, the doctor informs him that the gun stunt has revealed a brain tumor — news he keeps to himself, hoping that the terminal prognosis will save him the trouble of concocting another suicide scheme.
Why does Mike Tyson want to die, you ask? Fair question. As a dramatic construct, he’s an insult to teens who actually battle with depression and the impulse to harm themselves. More accurately, he’s a mopey, morbid guy (with his spare time, he starts stealing plywood to build his own coffin) looking for some reason to engage with his own life. He resents his mother, never really knew his father (Sebastian Schipper, who reenters his life late in the film) and fails to make friends among his peers.
The script’s job is to give him a reason to live, and with the help of a youth welfare therapist (Udo Kier, making an odd, out-of-character cameo), it prescribes beatific and improbably dedicated social worker named Miranda (Bea Santos, a natural beauty with realistic features and radiant, real-world energy), who is the first person in his life to appreciate him for who he is. “I like you Mike Tyson, but you know you’ve got a screw loose,” she says, going above and beyond in her therapy (assuming that such counselors typically don’t prescribe skinny dipping and make-out sessions as part of their self-esteem building schemes).
Playing twee scenes with true sincerity, Cossen manages to convince us that this movie might finally reveal something new and true about human nature that, say, “The Fault in Our Stars” or the entire Nicholas Sparks oeuvre failed to capture (“The Notebook” was clearly a partial inspiration here). And then the ukulele comes out, rudely reminding us that “Coconut Hero” is just another confection designed to manipulate our emotions. As it happens, the ukulele song is actually pretty great — the kind of scene that, however contrived, will have its intended effect on young audiences. Too bad Cossen, who brings a number of clever and blessedly unselfconscious flourishes to his all-around slick pic, doesn’t trust such acoustic support early on, drowning moments that ought to be subtle with hyperactive musical choices.