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What Goes Up

Steve Coogan in What Goes Up

Imagine that David Lynch had been inspired to do a movie about teens in the 1980s by River’s Edge and The Breakfast Club and you’ll have some idea of this independent movie, featured at the recent Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. The BNFF misleadingly promoted it as a Hilary Duff vehicle, when it isn’t really a movie for teenagers at all, though in its best moments it captures some uncomfortable but universal truths about young people making the difficult and largely unguided transition into adulthood.

The movie is set in 1986 just prior to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after liftoff killing everyone on board. Steve Coogan plays Campbell Babbitt, New York reporter sent to cover the New Hampshire town that was home to Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who was aboard Challenger. Campbell’s editor has sent him there as both punishment and curative for getting too deeply involved with a series of articles about an inner city mother struggling after the death of her son.

But instead of covering the hoopla regarding the official hometown heroine, Campbell is drawn to a group of misfit students mourning the death of their teacher, a man who tried to get them to focus their passions outwards. With his death—an apparent suicide—they are on the verge of retreating into their own obsessions again. And in trying to make them the focus of a story about teenagers’ need for heroes, Campbell doesn’t realize that he may be setting himself up to take that place, a spot he can’t possibly fill.

It can’t be denied that this film by first-time director Jonathan Glatzer (produced by a web of partners with Buffalo roots) is a mess. It has too many anachronistic errors to ignore, and wobbles so unsteadily between drama and rude comedy that it’s hard to tell how to take some of the more extreme scenes. Still, Glatzer and co-writer Robert Lawson (adapting his original play) have a real feel for teenage confusion and self-romanticization, especially as it might express itself in a small town with little tolerance for eccentricity. It’s worth seeing if you can appreciate a movie where the trees don’t quite add up to a forest.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for What Goes Up

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