SIFF Film Review – Teddy Bears
Love and friendship are two of the most fundamental elements of life. When these bonds are tested, it demonstrates how strong our interpersonal connections truly are. This is the concept behind the dark comedy Teddy Bears, from first-time directors Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman.
After the painful death of his mother from cancer, Andrew (David Krumholtz) gathers his friends at a house out in the desert for a celebration of his birthday, during which, unbeknownst to them, he has a request that none of them are prepared for. While the story eases you into meeting the characters, it brings a twist with it that is so abrupt and bizarre it seems like a total joke on the surface: Andrew wants to sleep with his friends’ girlfriends as a way to feel love again. As the film goes on, it peels back the layers of its outlandish premise to develop a still-quirky plot, but one with a lot more humanity. The story is a bit bizarre, but not completely implausible; to enjoy the film you need to be willing to give it some time to develop, and it rewards you for your patience.
Beatty and Fishman, given the resources they had available, made the wise decision to focus on the characters. The film feels very indie in spirit and is a character drama in the truest sense, set almost entirely at a house outside of Joshua Tree, CA. Given that the setting is quite isolated, the majority of the pressure is left to the actors to make the film entertaining. The cast is fantastic and does a great job of transitioning between comedy and drama, without letting either bleed through too heavily. There are certainly a fair number of laughs, but where the movie shines brightest is in the small dramatic moments sprinkled throughout, in particular through the ways the characters share their feelings through non-verbal communication. Without knowing that these are first-time directors, you wouldn’t be able to tell. They do an excellent job of letting their actors shine and highlighting the beauty of the nature around them.
The film is a true team effort, with at least six characters playing significant roles in the story, divided into three sets of couples (Krumholtz and Melanie Lynskey, Jason Ritter and Gillian Jacobs, and Zachary Knighton and Ahna O’Reilly). Curiously, almost everyone in the movie comes from an extensive background in TV, right down to the supporting cast, which includes French Stewart and Ned Beatty (father of co-director Thomas Beatty). The dynamic relationships between all the characters together and the individual couples create a similar experience to watching a fractal screensaver, with the connections changing and morphing throughout the course of the film.
Despite having a great cast, it takes a while to understand what the filmmakers are trying to do with Teddy Bears. The concept of a group of friends gathering to spend time together is a classic trope in film, usually played for dramatic or comedic value. The comedy in the movie is definitely dark, but it isn’t to the level of a movie like Very Bad Things. The actions of the characters might be extreme and difficult to relate to at times, but none of them become unlikeable or utterly unrelatable. As strange as the plot gets, it keeps within the realm of plausibility, never venturing into the territory of being farcical. That is the charm of the movie—it makes you question what you would do if you were in the situation, and is a great basis for discussion based on which characters you relate to the most.
The biggest weakness of the film, though, is an issue of scripting. The last third of the film is where the inexperience of first-time screenwriter Beatty comes most into play, as the drama quickly ramps up through a major event towards the end. It’s as if he feels the pressure to wrap up the story, but couldn’t figure out a smaller way to come to the end. It doesn’t feel entirely cohesive with the rest of the plot, but does get the job done. This is the point where the movie will divide those who enjoy it and those who find it frustrating. The jump in the relationships feels in opposition to the way they naturally grew and feels a bit artificial, sort as if the end was predetermined and Beatty had to course correct while writing the script so that he could get there.
Teddy Bears might not be love at first sight, but if you give it a chance, it finds a way of growing on you. It has an engaging core once you work through the bizarre outer shell—it is more kiwi, less onion. The ending isn’t anything particularly remarkable, but the journey to it is what makes the film engaging. After all, if M. Night Shyamalan has taught us anything, it’s that the most important element isn’t being surprised about where things go; it is being satisfied in how you got there.
Final Grade: B