A quasi sequel to a festival-favorite short named “Dennis,” Teddy Bear is a portrait of a man who is, for all intents and purposes, a 38-year-old child. A bodybuilder of enormous stature, Dennis would be intimidating to those around him, except, as the title suggests, he’s really just a big, adorable teddy bear. But his peaceful demeanor belies a serious issue: his overbearing mother. Small in size but huge on manipulation, she constantly undermines Dennis, preventing him from developing the self esteem necessary for him to go out and live his own life. When he’s not with his mother at home, he’s working out at the gym, but his impotent flirtations with women are rejected. Finally, he sneaks away toThailand, where he’s told he can find a woman who will want to spend time with him. Disturbed by what he finds there, he finally manages to find new friends when he embraces who he is.
A small indie foreign film that sneaks up on you, Teddy Bear is a surprisingly warm-hearted and complex drama — in many way, it’s a traditional coming-of-age tale, albeit one involving a muscled, tattooed giant with a serious case of arrested development. But it’s that “albeit” that makes Teddy Bear unique, and writer/director Mads Matthiesen deserves praise for recognizing and developing it. When discussing the initial short film at the festival Q&A, Matthiesen stated that he had simply needed a body builder for his short “Dennis”, but after screening that film for festival audiences, he found that audiences fell in love with lead Kim Kold. Developing that short concept into a feature-length film with the same actor, Teddy Bear is more of a companion piece rather than straight sequel to its predecessor, dealing with similar themes before heading into new territory. But while the short is a well-made, intriguing movie, Teddy Bear is an outstanding first feature. Simple and restrained, Teddy Bear shows an even-handed director who understands his film’s best attributes. With a movie about an adult who needs to finally stand up to his mother and become a man, there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong. Predictable, sentimental and even cliché at times, and centered on a character few of us have any incentive to care about, Teddy Bear almost seems doomed from the start. But Kold’s outstanding, charming performance as the soft-spoken, tender giant breaks down that barrier, developing into an unexpected underdog that we begin to care and even root for. A professional bodybuilder who never intended on becoming a professional actor, Kold is a natural in front of the camera, and it appears he has found a second career.
A surprising audience charmer, it’s a testament to the simple-but-profound story, steady direction and endearing performance that the audience was audibly rooting for Dennis at the end of the film. People were actually cheering, which might be expected for action films, but was rather surprising for a quiet, introspective drama. It’s no wonder Teddy Bear won the World Cinema Directing Award for a drama at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it will hopefully get more recognition after a few more festival screenings.