Suppose your lose the use of your legs, or your arms. Suppose the guy next to you has as well, only he can barely speak as well. Suppose someone with the use of their entire body tells you to just think positive. Suppose this someone told you to just get over it and be grateful, because no matter how bad off you are, there is always someone worse off than you. This is the premise of the Norwegian film The Art of Negative Thinking.
Gerir (Fridtjov Saheim) has lost his legs in an auto accident at the ripe old age of 33. He spends his days getting high on cannabis and watching war films in his room. His wife Ingvild (Kirsti Eline Torhaug) has endured his verbally abusive, self pity party for as long as she can. As a last attempt to try and get Gerir to cope with his disability, she has called the State Welfare office. Help comes in the form of a support group whose primary method of therapy is the power of positive thinking.
Lead by therapist, physically able Tori (Kjersti Holmen), the support group includes of couple Gard & Marte. Like Tori, Gard (Henrik Mestad) is fully able, while beautiful blond Marte (Marian Saastad) is a quadriplegic, compliments of Gard not securing her safe harness on properly in an accident of undisclosed origin (I guessed bungee jumping). Lillernor (Kari Simonsen) is a depressed, pill-popping alcoholic who obsessively mourns her lost social status. Asbjorn (Per Schanning) is a wheelchair bound stroke victim who barely has the ability to speak. Tori carts her patients around, preaching positive thinking and carries a crochet knit pouch into which members of the group must expel negative thoughts.
Gerir finds it all too queer. So much so that he tries to flee the house once the intruders arrive, only to find himself turned over in his wheelchair on the side of the road. He doesn’t want help. He much rather contemplate his own suicide in solitude. But he returns, reluctantly, for Ingvild.
The afternoon wears on with the group tries their best to get to know Gerir. But he will have none of it. Tori tries to manipulate Gerir emotionally by dregging up all of the more monstrous miseries that the other members of the group face, that he has been spared. But Gerir will entertain none of that.
Tori taunts that Ingvild has called because this is his last chance before she leaves him. Gerir decides that maybe she should. Gerir is his own man. He feels that he is entitled to his misery and he is not about to let anyone make it less than it is. Torturous and humiliating and painful as it may be, his misery is his, and he will act out anyway he chooses, including punching the therapist square in the mouth.
Unfortunately for Tori, her other clients begin to agree with Gerir. Thus, the rebellion begins.
This film is delightfully irreverent. It strips away the politeness and political correctness of how we deal with differently abled persons. The film cuts straight to the bone of the despair and hopelessness of people who are essentially trapped in their own malfunctioning bodies. It addresses how people still have physical and emotional needs, even when they are no longer completely physically able; even when they don't seem to "be all there". This film turns on a dime, literally grabbing at heart strings one moment and having you rolling with laughter the next. Great performances all around. Well done.
Writer/Director Bard Breien has given us a abrasive, hostile character of Gerir, whom we know has been driven to bad behavior because of his new handicap. We know he was not always a bad guy, and he still is not a bad guy really. Our hope for him is that he finds the delicate balance between self-loathing and self-worth in his unfortunate situation. However, it is refreshing to see a character who actively resists being emotionally sedated; one who would rather feel the pain of his circumstances that turn a blind eye to it, and feel nothing.
Actually, when you think about it, to feel everything is the best way to truly feel alive.
The Art of Negative Thinking is subtitled in English and part of the World Cinema Showcase for the 2007 AFI Fest.