'Coconut Hero': Munich Review
German director Florian Cossen was at the helm of this Canadian indie, which stars Alex Ozerov as a teenager who fumbles his suicide attempts until he hears he's got a brain tumor
When your protagonist is called Mike Tyson, you’re either watching a sports documentary or something like Coconut Hero, a Canada-set indie about an adolescent loser who’s so unlucky he even botches his attempt to put himself out of his misery. Repeatedly. Though both the lead’s name and any one-sentence plot description will make the film sound too precious for words, what’s miraculous about this timidly handsome feature from German duo Florian Cossen, who directed, and screenwriter Elena von Saucken, is the fact that it slowly but surely wins over the audience; in the end, resistance is about as futile as the protagonist’s endeavors to try and kick the bucket. After a national premiere at the Munich Film Fest, this alternately blackly diverting and sweetly romantic independent film will be released locally mid-August. A slot at a large North American festival should then segue to further fest play and, possibly, some theatrical exposure.
The early going of the tryingly titled film establishes pretty quickly that 16-year-old Mikey (Alex Ozerov) might be depressed but he’s nothing if not meticulous and methodical. Before killing himself, he phones the paper to dictate his own obituary and seems pleased when he can get seven lines for the price of five. He then goes into his bedroom, in a nondescript house in a nondescript former mining town in nondescript Ontario, and puts his father’s rifle to his head. “Statistically, 99% of the people that shoot themselves in the head die and one doesn’t,” Mike explains in a deadpan voice-over, before adding: “That’s me”. A burst of the brass-filled, slapstick-like score further helps set the zany yet nonetheless surprisingly low-key tone. The publication of Mike’s obituary, the next day -- the newspaper clearly didn’t get the memo about the statistical probabilities of young Tyson perhaps not actually ending up dead after all -- puts in motion the rest of the story.
Von Saucken’s well-structured screenplay approaches death as something that holds a morbid fascination for a teen ready to cling to anything that presents any kind of certainty. He’s in constant fear of being bullied at school and at home he’s stuck with his histrionic single mother (Krista Bridges), who left his German dad, Frank (Sebastian Schipper, the director of recent Berlinale hit Victoria), years ago.
The director-screenwriter duo -- whose first collaboration, The Day I Was Not Born, was set mainly in Argentina -- constantly pay attention to small but telling details, such as the fact Mike is saved because his father’s bullets were actually blanks, as if they symbolized the non-existent relationship with his long-gone old man and at the same time suggest a kind of protective, fatherly embrace when he most needed it. It’s no surprise, then, when he suddenly shows up at Mike’s house, prompted by a certain obituary, that will initiate the -- spoiler, for anyone who’s never seen a droll yet heartwarming indie film -- slow process of trying to find some common ground with his Dad, who turns out to be living not back in Europe but in an equally sleepy town not all that far away.
Initially, Mike seems determined to go through with his plan to kill himself, especially when, during his hospital stay for his head injuries, they detect a tumor in his brain. The discovery comes as a relief for the young man, who now doesn’t have to put in any more effort to get himself killed, and also prompts some chuckle-worthy answers from an energetic young pastor (Jim Annan), who continues to interpret Mikey’s questions (“Does God answer prayers?”) in the wrong light. Another highlight is a visit to a local funeral parlor, where a ghostly employee (R.D. Reid, who looks like a lost Adams Family member) lets Mike try several casket options. What makes these scenes comical is that they’re played entirely straight and that, despite the film’s somewhat wacky premise and gallery of odd supporting characters, everything remains grounded in a recognizable reality and the characters’ behavior is outwardly logical and consistent.
If Mike’s encounters with his father start to suggest something about where he came from, his meeting with a dance instructor he meets as part of his therapy, Miranda (Bea Santos), points in the direction of a possible future. Here too, the writing excels at bringing a believability and logic to the material; their "meet cute" is more awkward than anything else and the only reason he asks to see her again is because he doesn’t drive, she has a car and he needs to pick up some planks because the broke teenager’s finally decided to make his own casket.
Cossen and Von Saucken’s homeland, Germany, is referenced not only in the character of the father but also by a therapist, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Udo Kier, who explains that the country is “small and full of Germans”. But rather remarkably, there’s never a sense anything is lost in translation. Quite the contrary, Coconut Hero excels at suggesting a sense of place, often in telling details. When Miranda says “I’m new in town,” for example, Mike’s reply, “Haven’t heard that in a long time,” speaks volumes about the demographic problems of a formerly booming mining town where the remaining population is now forced to work at the local saw mill. Even cinematographer Brendan Steacy’s elegant camera movements help in this regard, such as when the pokerfaced protagonist escapes town and the camera keeps panning to the right, past Miranda, who’s got a flat tire, and all the way to the neighboring town, where the pastor lives (his advice: “Don’t stray from the path”), and then back again.
The young but very talented Ozerov (Guidance) is ideally cast and displays the same kind of intensity as Welsh actor Craig Roberts, the lead of Richard Ayoade’s 2010 indie Submarine, another story about an awkward but lovable teen. Santos, in what could have been another manic pixie dream girl role, brings an earthy groundedness to Miranda that ensures she feels real, not a romanticized version of a young woman, while Schipper, as the father, finds the right mix of gravitas and emotional clumsiness for his role, which both suggests where Mike might’ve gotten some of his character traits from while ensuring his dad isn’t an idealized character either. Bridges does what she can with the most one-note role in the ensemble, since her character needs to make it believable Mike would prefer to die rather than spent more time with her.
Production companies: UFA Fiction, Six Island, Cine Plus, UFA Cinema
Cast: Alex Ozerov, Bea Santos, Krista Bridges, Sebastian Schipper, Udo Kier
Director: Florian Cossen
Screenplay: Elena von Saucken
Producers: Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach, Paul Scherzer
Director of photography: Brendan Steacy
Production designer: Nazgol Goshtasbpour
Costume designer: Brenda Broer
Editor: Philipp Thomas
Music: Matthias Klein
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 100 minutes