The tale of a big cuddly bodybuilder looking for love might be slim on story, but there is nothing lightweight about this emotionally satisfying character study.
Danish director Mads Matthiesen’s debut film Teddy Bear (10 timer til Paradis), expanding on his own 2007 short Dennis, won the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance this year, and the restrained nature of this emotionally powerful film gives us a clear indication why. Using a cast of non-professional actors, Matthiesen contrasts the impossible largeness of a super-heavyweight bodybuilder with his socially crippling shyness. Digging into the fluffy filling at its heart, this film manages to quietly show the gradual development of a man’s self-confidence, catching up with his already impressive physique.
Dennis Peterson (played by actual bodybuilder Kim Kold) is a 38 year-old man who has worked all of his life to achieve physical perfection. A monolith of a man, his physically imposing body towers over everyone. Despite this, he has been unsuccessful in finding the love of his life, an awkward first date showing us how uncomfortable he is around women. Explaining this somewhat is his comparatively diminutive mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft), who passive-aggressively dominates much of his life. When she isn’t making pointed comments about his social activities, she refuses to eat or come out of her room in response to anything that doesn’t please her. However, after attending the wedding of his Uncle Bent (Allan Mogenson) to his new Thai wife, Dennis resolves to take his first steps towards independence by heading to Thailand. Once there, he begins looking for love in all the wrong places, perhaps finding it where he is most comfortable.
Teddy Bear is a film effectively split into twin sets of two-handers, the first between Kold and Steentoft, the latter half principally concerned with budding romance between Dennis and Toi (Lamaiporn Hougaard), the widowed owner of a Thai gym, and someone that he is instantly able to be comfortable around. Despite this, the film actually posits itself not as a romantic film, in the face of the protagonist’s primary aim of finding someone to be with, but rather as a late coming of age drama. Dennis searches for a female companion, but what he is really looking for is a way to sever the maternal ties that are keeping him in a state of arrested development. Indeed, once the connection is made with Toi, things begin to move quite quickly for Dennis. His mother reacts violently to her son’s progress, revealing that it is actually Ingrid who is stuck in her own limbo. Yet Teddy Bear is also a film that takes its time coming to these conclusions, allowing both the viewer and the characters to settle into a new scene before proceeding. This allows for an incredibly amount of intimacy with these otherwise unfamiliar faces.
Kold is an amazing acting discovery, filling the frame not just with his physical bulk, but with his unlikely screen presence, moving with equal ease in the gym just as much as he does on the Thai streets. The leisurely pace of the film mirrors his own simple grace, another surprising element to the film. His size is the cause of some visual gags throughout Teddy Bear, telegraphing that this often contemplative and sometimes depressing film is actually more uplifting than the shop-front would indicate. One of the better character-based pieces of the festival, it is also one of the most uplifting.
Teddy Bear played at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2012.