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PARK CITY – The title implies something adorable but also soft, and it’s the avoidance of that latter quality that makes Teddy Bear a pleasurable character study. Danish director Mads Matthiesen’s feature expansion of his much-lauded 2007 short film, Dennis, recounts a gentle giant’s struggle to overcome crippling shyness and take hold of his life. In other hands, the material might have drowned in cute quirks, but Matthiesen’s unadorned observational style has a distinctly Scandinavian stoicism that trusts both the comedy and sentiment to emerge organically.
Dennis (Kim Kold) is a mountain of tattooed muscle, a 38-year-old professional bodybuilder with a gruff face and a timid heart. He’s also got a controlling mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft), a needy, suffocating nag who treats him like a child. She could be teaching masterclasses in passive-aggressiveness and the artful manipulation of filial guilt. But Dennis is loving and loyal. An awkward date scene shows how ill-equipped he is to break away even if Ma were to loosen her grip.
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He seems most relaxed at the gym, where composer Sune Martin’s joyous music conveys the contentment he gets from lifting weights, spotting his workout buddy (Patrick Johnson) or giving him pointers on posing and flexing.
Dennis and his mother attend the wedding of his Uncle Bent (Allan Mogensen), who is no catch but has come back from Thailand with a young bride (Sukianya Suwan). In the amusingly uncomfortable scene, the guests’ congratulatory toasts barely conceal their stony-faced judgment, Ingrid least of all. But lonely outsider Dennis is intrigued by his uncle’s advice that women in Asia are less standoffish.
Lying to his petulant mother about his destination, Dennis travels to Thailand, where Uncle Bent has instructed him to look up Scott (David Winters), an American bar owner in coastal Pattaya, to arrange introductions. There’s something oddly touching about this hulking man, dressed in his new tailor-made jacket and Bermuda shorts, setting out in search of romance along streets where sex workers a fraction of his size literally fling themselves at him. Unsurprisingly, the girls Scott lines up for him are much too forward for Dennis, causing him acute discomfort.
Drawn to the only place he feels at ease, Dennis wanders into a local gym where a trainer recognizes him from his professional competition days. An invitation to a group dinner follows, and he begins a hesitant flirtation with Toi (Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard), the widowed owner of the gym.
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Matthiesen and co-screenwriter Martin Pieter Zandvliet share just the first sparks of this incipient romance before returning Dennis to Denmark. Back home, he begins quietly making plans to bring Toi over. But when he tells his mother the truth about his absence, bitter reproach, spitefulness and emotional blackmail follow.
The contrast between Dennis’ formidable physical presence and his withdrawn manner is nicely played by Kold, as if he would choose invisibility if he could. Seeing him so intimidated by his tiny, frail mother is both funny and moving. Characteristic of the script’s subtle economies, only a few words are needed to convey that Dennis is somehow expected to atone for the failings of his father, who has either died or fled. Stopping just short of making Ingrid a total monster, Steentoft plays her with a martyr’s self-righteous pain, but also with the wrongheaded conviction that she’s acting out of love.
Teddy Bear is not the most substantial film, but it has a restrained charm and an emotional payoff in keeping with its prevailing understatement. As Dennis stands up to his mother, claiming the right to happiness in his familiar laconic way but with new purposefulness, he acquires a kind of strength previously unavailable to him.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Kim Kold, Elsebeth Steentoft, Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard, Allan Mogensen, David Winters
Production companies: SF Film, Beofilm
Director: Mads Matthiesen
Screenwriters: Mads Matthiesen, Martin Pieter Zandvliet
Producer: Morten Kjems Juhl
Executive producers: Birgitte Skov, Karoline Leth, Morten Frederiksen, Michael Fleischer
Director of photography: Laust Trier Mork
Production designer: Thomas Bremer
Music: Sune Martin
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Sales: Visit Films
No rating, 96 minutes
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