‘In a Better World’: What do children know about bullying that adults don’t?

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A scene from Susanne Bier’s film 'In a Better World.' (Sony Pictures Classics.)
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In In a Better World, the latest film by Danish director Susanne Bier, two young boys sit on top of a towering silo, their legs dangling over the edge, a hair-raising image of the fragility of life and the recklessness of youth. The two boys are friends of a sort, a friendship emerging from the shared experience of being bullied at school.

Their parents love them but are absent (one boy’s mother just died). Wind buffets around them, threatening to push them off the edge and send them plummeting to the cobblestones 10, 12 stories below. They talk of their anger, their sense of helplessness in the face of the bullies, and what can be done about it. As is typical in such relationships, one is the leader, one is the follower, although there are some surprising switchbacks in the power dynamic along the way.

Susanne Bier has made a career out of examining the many ways in which power operates in our lives, both personally and on a larger societal level. What does having power mean, exactly? Can it be used wisely, or is it always a battering ram against the weak? Who is the biggest alpha dog in the room? With all of our enlightened ideas, power is still the quality most respected.

Bier’s characters are often professional do-gooders, people who work actively to bring about “a better world” (in After the Wedding, the main character runs an orphanage in India) and whose ideals are threatened when faced with harsh reality on the ground. Bier is fascinated by the intersection of the political and the personal, and manages to create very human stories by her keen observation of behavior, her unobtrusive manner with the camera (lots of handheld action so the scenes feel “caught” rather than planned), and her casting of superb actors.

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In a Better World, which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, tells the story of two Danish families confronting the violence surrounding them. Anton (played by acclaimed Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt) works as a doctor in a refugee camp in Kenya, trying to bring adequate medical care to a ravaged area ruled by dangerous warlords. He has a wife, Marianne (played by Trine Dyrholm), back in Denmark, and they are struggling with an impending divorce. They have a small geeky son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) who experiences school as a horror of bullying and harassment. Anton comes home to Denmark often, but it is apparent that he is conflicted about his priorities. His thoughts are often back in Kenya, and while he is concerned about his marriage and his son, what are those small personal problems compared to the situation in Kenya?

Claus (played by international star Ulrich Thomsen) is a busy businessman with a young son, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). His wife has just died, and so he has moved Christian back home to Denmark from where they had been living in London. Christian has to go to a new school, where he witnesses Elias being beat up on the first day. Slowly, the two become friends. Christian is dealing with the upheaval left in the wake of his mother’s death, and his anger at the bullies at the new school is obviously a way of channeling his grief. Elias suffers his parents’ travails in silence, and trudges through the hallways at school like a consummate victim. Anton and Marianne fight and make up, all while Anton deals with the “real” problems in Kenya, leaving his fragile son unattended-to. Claus is a cold man, and misses the warning signs in Christian’s personality, as Christian slowly turns into a cold-eyed little Dirty Harry, hell-bent on revenge (the original title of the script, written by Bier and her frequent collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, was “Revenge”.)

Bier has often been accused of directing glorified soap operas. But her freshness of outlook and her willingness to let events unfold with all of their jagged edges, brings something original and startling to the table. Scenes seem to erupt in In a Better World, anger or grief bursting out of a clear blue sky, the expression of emotions we all have felt, we all know, seeming true and frightening in the context of this particular story.

The families’ lives become intertwined when, during a group outing to a local playground, Anton and another father get into an altercation over their children, and the other man slaps Anton across the face. Christian and Elias look on at this and wonder why Anton could just walk away. It seems to be another example of the bullying they experience at school at the hands of a towering pimply sociopath named Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm).

The school officials do not punish Sofus, and instead have meetings with all three boys, asking for better behavior from all of them. The unwillingness to punish bullies outright is expanded out into the larger context of the warlords in Kenya, and, we assume, the “bad men” everywhere in the world. Anton knows that the man who slapped him is a silly man, and it is not worth it to get into it with him, but on the ground in Kenya he meets the warlords with strong resistance. Here, he has to meet strength with strength; it’s the only language warlords understand. But can that work back in the “civilized” world of Denmark? (Susanne Bier can be pretty brutal about the condescending assumptions people in the first world make about those in the third.) Different rules for Kenyans than for Danish?

Christian and Elias, who witnessed the violence in the playground, and who witnessed the pacifist response of Elias’ father, decide that something must be done. That man must pay.

In 2010, the issue of “bullying” took center stage, with a slew of teen suicides, not to mention Dan Savage’s hugely successful It Gets Better project, created in response to the suicides. Bullying is nothing new (George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” about his experience at boarding school as a young boy is one of the most harrowing things he ever wrote), but with virality of today’s media coverage on the issue, bullying is under the spotlight as never before.

In a Better World looks at bullying through multiple prisms: The women in Kenya are being stalked by a madman who cuts open their pregnant bellies to see the sex of their unborn babies. The refugee camp is threatened by armed men careening around in jeeps. Anton and Marianne bully one another in their crumbling marriage. Christian and Elias fight back against Sofus, and receive no support from the grownups who should be there to protect them. It is a timely film.

The performances are universally grounded and intense, a hallmark of Bier’s work. Mikael Persbrandt is lovely and troubled as Anton, looking for connection through his relief work, and yet missing connection to his own family. The two kids in the film are nothing less than extraordinary. These boys are 13 years old, a tough age for anyone, and Nielsen and Rygaard create complex, depressive, angry characters: boys on the verge of becoming men. Nielsen, in particular, has a very difficult job. After his mother’s death, he has clamped down on all signs of emotion, so when it does come bursting out of him in two key scenes with his father, the effect is shattering. Bier obviously has a gift with directing children: these two young boys carry the film on their narrow shoulders, turning In a Better World into a very effective coming-of-age film.

Denmark is obviously the land of Lars von Trier and Dogme 95 and the influence shows in Bier’s work. She uses natural lightning, natural-looking actors (little to no makeup on the women), and realistic real-life settings. Bier has said that she finds limitations freeing in many ways because it forces the director to work with what is there, as opposed to trying to create something from scratch. The settings, however, are beautiful and haunting, from the dusty expanse of the refugee camp to the beachhouse where Anton stays in Denmark, isolated and serene. The colors are lush and deep, rich blues and browns. The score (composed by Johan Johan Söderqvist, who also did the score for Let the Right One In) is orchestral and omnipresent, underlying almost every scene with emotion and quiet power. It doesn’t overpower, it supports.

If someone hits you, shouldn’t you hit back, and harder? The question may seem to have an easy answer, at least for those who live privileged lives, but for Bier things are not that simple. Different contexts require different responses. To maintain moral integrity in the midst of fluctuating associations and circumstances is one of the problems of Modern Man. Christian and Elias, not even men yet, are about to learn that the hard way.

In a Better World resonates long after the screen has gone to black.

It opens today in LA and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema.