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In a Better World

Hævnen - In a Better World
Susanne Bier, Denmark

Oscar nominee Hævnen also has a coming-of-age element, but extends to the parents as well. It attempts to posit some moral questions about the human condition, but while the film is well meaning and well made, ultimately it succumbs to a few too many clichés to be truly powerful. The film opens somewhere in Kenya, where a blond and blue-eyed doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) treats as many people as possible in a remote aide camp. From there the narrative jumps to Denmark, a quiet town on the coast, and we meet two pre-teen boys, Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard). Elias is one of Anton's two sons, a quiet, timid boy going through a prolonged awkward stage made exponentially worse by some persistent and escalating bullying at school. The teachers and administrators are slow to act in any meaningful way, actually blaming Anton and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who are inching toward a divorce. Christian is a new classmate, having moved to town with his father after his mother's recent passing due to cancer. Christian too is bullied, but he does not passively take it, instead attacking the bigger kid with such force and fury that he hospitalizes him. Besides being in the right defending themselves, the two boys form a quick bond and cover for each other with the school and police.

Soon two conflicting philosophies in dealing with aggression are at war, embodied by Christian's rage and Anton's pacifism, with Elias the swaying target not sure which reaction is appropriate. Even when confronted with some of the darkest brutality one can imagine while in Africa, Anton chooses to turn the other cheek. Christian sees that as weakness, and his experience has taught him to hit back hard and fast so you don't get attacked again. Elias' instincts pull him one way, but the power of violence is formidable, and the boys begin to manifest a cold anger in more and more dangerous ways.

It's all a little too pat, too familiar, too arch in some spots, and too pedestrian in others. It's well told and well acted enough that its flaws don't completely derail it, but it isn't nearly as complex or as important as it imagines itself to be. A noble attempt, but too contrived to fully work.