The Art of Negative Thinking



AFI Fest

Maipo Film & TV Production

Look-on-the-bright-side philosophizing gets a smack in the kisser in "The Art of Negative Thinking," an engagingly angry black comedy from Norway. As a group of people affected by devastating injuries, the ensemble of experienced actors finds the right balance between character and caricature, launching an exuberant assault on mawkishness. Writer-director Bard Breien took the directing prize at the Karlovy Vary festival for this first feature, which unspooled in AFI Fest's feature competition.

At the center of the story is Geirr (Fridtjov Saheim), a pissed-off paraplegic who lives in an idyllic white clapboard house, courtesy of insurance money from an accident. He's pushed away his loving wife, Ingvild (Kirsti Eline Torhaug) -- "I don't like women who are into cripples," he tells her -- and spends most of his time smoking spliffs, listening to Johnny Cash and watching war movies. As a last resort to save their marriage, Ingvild invites a support group to their home.

If Nurse Ratched had been a disciple of "The Secret," she'd be something like the group's leader, Tori (Kjersti Holmen). Transporting her flock to Geirr's house, she's reckless behind the wheel, more focused on her upcoming book about their journey to positivity. Geirr, understandably, wants no part of her authoritarian therapy, which revolves around an uneasy combo of tough love, condescension, visualizations and a crocheted "shit bag" where group members can deposit their "difficult" emotions.

Never uttering a negative word is young Marte (Marian Saastad Ottesen), who was paralyzed in a climbing accident. She responds to everything with a disturbingly goofy grin while her self-absorbed husband, Gard (Henrik Mestad), guiltily tends to her. Stroke victim Asbjorn (Per Schaaning) sputters and makes wild grabs at Tori. Sixtyish Lillemor (Kari Simonsen), whose injuries are more emotional than physical, passes time by tallying who among them is worst off -- an honor she covets.

Despite its transgressive tone, the film gives way to a conventional structure: Over the course of the visit, bonds are busted and rebuilt. Fists fly, defenses wear down, Geirr breaks out the pot and gin, momentary couplings take place and, for good measure, there's a round of Russian roulette inspired by "The Deer Hunter." Some of it feels as false as the most manipulative feel-good drama's catharsis. But the strong performances and Breien's wry glance maintain the dark energy and, most important, the healthy skepticism toward self-righteous cliches that posit denial as a method of healing.