What Goes Up

By Michael T. Dennis

 

“What Goes Up,” the ambitious feature debut of writer-director Jonathan Glatzer, attempts to answer such “big” questions as Why do we need the truth?  What makes a hero?  Is love more powerful than lies? Falling short of any grand revelations, at least it offers a fresh slant on the quirky high school dramas that it takes after.

 

We are led to the isolated world of teenagers by Campbell Babbit (Steve Coogan), a reporter dispatched from New York in 1986 to cover the small-time festivities in the New Hampshire hometown of the soon-to-be first civilian astronaut.  There is a parade, a papier mâché space shuttle, and a musical production in the school auditorium that promises intense thrills.  Coincidentally, there is also the recent death of a teacher who was once briefly a classmate of Babbit's, and whose band of miscellaneous cast-off students look to this new arrival from the outside world (complete with a cosmopolitan British accent) to guide their grief. 

 

This is only the first, most central of many storylines that clutter “What Goes Up” to the point of a narrative chokehold.  Besides the backdrop of the “Challenger” shuttle launch, there's also the ethical dilemma faced by Babbit, who is about to receive an unlikely Pulitzer Prize for a series of dishonest articles.  Add in the subplots involving a student's unwanted pregnancy, sexual longings of a paraplegic girl (comic relief, believe it or not), and various rivalries among students and teachers and you get storytelling ambition run amok.

 

We've seen teenage outsiders–even pregnant ones–before, in “Saved!” and “Juno,” and we've seen them prove that they're not the losers the world thinks they are in “Napoleon Dynamite.”  In stylistic terms, there are numerous references to the surreal, timeless American landscape of Wes Anderson, including slow-motion photography, chapter headings, and production design based on kitsch.  The Anderson connection extends to the film's music–Roddy Bottum's original score sounding like a diminished copy of Mark Mothersbaugh's music for “The Royal Tenenbaums.”  There's even a David Bowie song and, yes, it's the obvious choice: “Heroes”.

 

But so little of this imitation feels like flattery or homage.  Instead, it is employed as self-serving appropriation when more original thought is needed.  “What Goes Up” succeeds in its depiction of the students, who deviate from prevalent stereotypes of high-schoolers in the media.  With the possible exception of Hillary Duff, these are kids who look like kids.  They don't look like pubescent supermodels and they don't talk like 30-year olds.  Instead they have pimples, wear glasses, and (since the film is set in the 1980s) have bad hair.  Their sense of humor is stunted and as such not very funny; for a comedy, there is surprisingly little laughter. They function as group members, reliant on each other's friendship, but each of the teens is unique in handling the inevitable trials of adolescence.

 

Predictably, the kids learn from Babbit and he learns just as much from them.  Steve Coogan is adequate in his role, conveying warmth with a thin smile and confusion with a furrowed brow (anger and despair get even deeper furrowed brow).  However, it's unfortunate that, while the students are so much more interesting, it is Babbit's life that receives most of the screen time.  Having failed to stay objective toward one of his subjects (a “heroic” woman who committed suicide but lives on in his fictitious articles), he wrestles with the nature of truth in a way that's never fully explored.

 

More attention is paid to the discussion of heroism, with the intriguing suggestion that the only truly heroic figure is Mr. Calallucci, the dead teacher.  Although we never get a clear look at him, his effect on the students (“he was almost like Jesus”) is a legacy that not even an astronaut is guaranteed.  If Babbit is a hero of journalism, it's only because of his manipulation of the truth.  Other forms of heroism include the kind you win a medal for through the providence of chance, as when Jim (Josh Peck) rescues the neighbor's baby after spying on the breast-feeding mother.

 

A final example comes as the “Challenger” prepares to take off with the assembled students watching on television.  The moment is handled well, with the outcome left up to the viewers to remember.  It also seems the most fitting way to reference the way disaster creates instant icons out of unheroic actions, and serves as nice punctuation for a rather muddled theme.

 

Cast

 

Campbell Babbitt – Steve Coogan

Lucy – Hilary Duff

Penelope – Molly Shannon

Tess – Olivia Thirlby

Jim – Josh Peck

Fenster – Max Hoffman

Sue – Andrea Brooks

Ann – Ingrid Nilson

Lute – Laura Konechny

Peggy – Sarah Lind

Donna – Molly Price

Dusty Drake – Kendra Sue Waldman

Blythe – Aubrey Mozino

 

 

Credits

 

Nasser Group, Three Kings Productions, and Station3

Distributed by Sony Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Glatzer

Written by Jonathan Glatzer and Robert Lawson

Producers, Steve Coogan, Deboragh Gabler, Jonathan Glatzer, Breanne Hartley, James Hoke, Robert Lawson, Anthony Miranda, Joseph Nahas, R.D. Robb

Original Music, Roddy Bottum

Cinematography, Antonio Calvache

Film Editing, Jennifer Godin, Fenster Itski

Casting, Susan Brouse, Lynne Carrow, Meredith Tucker

Production Design, Tony Devenyi