The lives of two adopted Asian half-siblings, a Polish migrant worker and a shell-shocked Norwegian native, clash — but do not quite “Crash” — in “Upperdog,” Sara Johnsen’s uneven but often involving sophomore feature. The story of a young soldier returning home from Afghanistan is never fully developed, but the oh-so-human foibles of the “new” Norwegians are related in an engaging mix of comedy and light drama. This mongrel sold an impressive 115,000 tix locally last year and should bark up further sales in Europe, especially in ancillary.
Helmer’s debut, the superior “Kissed by Winter,” was set in the remote Norwegian countryside during the titular season, and derived part of its appeal from its playful attitude toward narrative and genre conventions, something the more straightforward “Upperdog,” set during the summer in Oslo, lacks. But both features show a flair for subtly portraying class differences and the multicultural face of Norway that feels inclusive without seeming unnatural.
Wise-guy ad exec Axel (Hermann Sabado, good) is old enough to have moved out of the villa of his well-off adoptive parents long ago, though he probably would not survive on his own for long. The same cannot be said of his older half-sister, Yanne (Bang Chau, adequate), who grew up in a working-class family. She now slaves away at an Asian eatery in an unsafe nabe and shares a room with a Polish woman, Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska, luminous), another hard worker with a can-do attitude.
Axel and Yanne haven’t seen each other since they arrived in Norway as kids. Yanne clearly remembers being whisked off by different adoptive families, though Axel was too young to remember much. But when Maria starts working as a maid for Axel’s family, the protags are suddenly connected in unexpected ways. Not only does Yanne need to decide whether she wants to remind her sibling about their shared past, but her sprightly roommate falls head over heels for Axel’s cocky charm.
The unlikely couple’s attraction feels real and provides most of the pic’s gentle comedy. Impressively, Johnsen never makes a point of her protags’ foreignness, treating them simply as human beings who happen to live in Norway.
Also part of the mix, though never an integral part of the film, is the story of the blond and brooding Per (Mads Sjogard Pettersen, not given much to work with). After a tour of duty in Afghanistan that still haunts, he moves across the street from Yanne’s workplace. His actions — falling in love with Yanne and dealing with his smart-ass kid brother (Magnus Bjornstad, stealing each scene he’s in) — are too obviously the mirror of the Maria-Axel-Yanne triangle to take on a life of their own. And Johnsen never fleshes out Per’s storyline enough to make his drama feel like more than a simple bid to add a topical note to a film mostly about feelings rather than politics. Repetitive flashbacks to what happened in Afghanistan strike a discordant note.
Tech package is clean and neat, with the exception of Marcus Paus’ at times overbearing score.