Watercooler Wednesdays: Björnstad & Truth Seekers
Watercooler Shows, the trending series that everyone talks about the next day at the office, around the water cooler … today there are no longer offices to go to, the movie theaters are rather closed than open, and the content on the streaming platforms is increasing exponentially. Watercooler Wednesdays seeks to be a (critical) guide through the VoD maze: from masterpiece series to guilty pleasures, and from blockbusters that keep you on the edge of your couch to hidden gems; if it leads to binging, then it’s exactly what we’re looking for.
The two recommendations I bring today couldn’t be more different, but in a way they complement each other. Björnstad/Beartown is a Swedish adaptation of the eponymous bestseller written by Fredrik Backman, a harrowing drama that focuses on a small community and its response to violence against women. Truth Seekers is a British web series written by and starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg that combines comedy with horror and then again some comedy.
Björnstad (Peter Grönlund, 2020)
It takes a village to raise a child. It’s an old African proverb about parenting, community, and so on, that somehow, nobody knows exactly, found its way into the American popular culture. Björnstad/Beartown could easily have a subtitle derived from the same African saying: It takes a village to raise a rapist.
Beartown opens with a “homecoming”. Peter Andersson, a former NHL star, returns as the new coach of the hockey team of the Swedish town where he started, where he is still seen as a hockey god. A god which everyone is expecting to bring them out of anonymity, to restore them to their former glory, to put the dormant town back on the map and to attract investors. In Beartown everyone lives for hockey, and both victories and defeats are met with boozing matches at the local bar. Hopes are now pinned on Peter and Kevin, the captain of the junior team and a hockey god in the making. Peter moves back into his parents’ house with his wife, son and teenage daughter, Maya.
The movie trailer clearly shows the event that sets the community on fire and the protagonists of the story. This is the moment when – spoiler alert – we need to talk about Kevin (ie – reference to Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film). It might be just a coincidence, but the connection is totally worth it. Oliver Dufåker (a real life hockey player, as it turns, making his acting debut here) perfectly combines the typical teenage temper and the baby face with those looks that signal a darker side. Kevin is the golden boy of the town, kept on a short leash by a father who lives through him his own unfulfilled glory as a hockey player. Kevin is/wants/needs to be a winner. In fact, that’s what he tells Maya before he rapes her: “You’re really turning down a winner?” The rape happens at the party after the victory in the semifinals, Maya likes Kevin, Kevin likes Maya, everyone at the party can see it, and even records and uploads proof of their mutual attraction. So now we reach the following dilemma: can you really accuse a winner?
The rape, in terms of cinematic depiction, is not really a spoiler here. Without being minimized – otherwise the whole thing would be a failure – the event itself also serves as a pretext for exploring the concept of rape culture and the wry manner in which certain behaviors/attitudes valued in a society may lead to denying other equally important and accepted values. The concept itself, especially its coverage and the variations that come with different geographical areas, is still subject to debate (here is some reading material). One thing that is generally agreed upon, and which Beartown explores with admirable finesse in terms of screenwriting, is this: rape culture is not the normative reflection of a community where there might be a dilemma around the principles of right and wrong in relation to sexual violence.
Were they asked on the street what they thought of the issue in question, most Swedes – even the “redneck” characters who populate the fictional “bear city” (Björnstad) – would strongly declare themselves against it. Still, some of them might make a joke (which doesn’t mean that they are more tolerant than those who wouldn’t take the same approach). And others might say something like “all sex offenders should be executed” (not exactly off topic: check out the news comments on the pieces about those convicted for corruption and the obsession with joking about prison rape). This is practically the area where Beartown stands, at the intersection of guys just having a crack, a sport where violence is game tactics, and the urge of the coach, the father of a raped girl: “Kevin, it’s all yours. All you have to do is claim it. So do it. Go out there and take it from them (ie – talking about victory).”
The rape changes not only the way we perceive everything that follows, but its gravitational pull also reshapes everything we’ve seen up to that point. That is also because the great plot twist can easily be picked up on from the get-go – from the trailer, from the synopsis, from the huge success of the novel that it adapts. The artistic (and social, even anthropological, in some places) objective that Beartown sets out for is to (un-)build around the rape an extremely familiar reality, but also frightening by its very familiarity. From slut shaming to peer pressure, from winner-take-all mentalities to placing camaraderie above all else, Beartown addresses each and one of them in a stylistically coherent way. Then, more interesting, are the hints in the narrative where the conflicting interests of the victim and the aggressor reverberate onto the social-economic fabric of the community: why couldn’t she at least wait until they won the final to report him? Just like in hockey games, where the punching happens in the ice ring and the death threats echo from the stands, the rape divides the community and even families into two opposing teams. Contrary to what cinema usually shows us – whether we are talking about dramas commonly seen in festivals or the rape and revenge type – sexual violence doesn’t bring society to a halt.
Beartown is available on HBO Go.
Truth Seekers (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Nat Saunders, James Serafinowicz, 2020)
In the vast amount of content flowing on streaming platforms, Truth Seekers should stand out as a flawed pixel. Not in a bad way, just different, outside what is normally considered mainstream. And it should indeed, but unfortunately it’s not the case, because what sets it apart is precisely that ambition – its lack of, actually – that has turned the series industry into a rival to Hollywood. From budgets to casting stars in lead roles, from thematic audacity to artistic sophistication, and from promotional campaigns to the ability of monopolizing public attention, nowadays series are created under the think big sign. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make them good, only more visible. Truth Seekers is truly a hidden gem, and the unpretentious way it performs its strengths is downright refreshing.
So how do you find a hidden gem that doesn’t want to get out in front? Like most people who watched it to the very end, I came across Truth Seekers thanks to the two headliner names: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Actually, Pegg-Frost would be a more accurate way to describe the attraction element of the film, a comic duo with a great ability to make cult films. Canceled by Amazon after only one season, Truth Seekers has all the prerequisites to become one of those series with a very devoted audience, but which doesn’t say much to others.
This time Nick Frost plays the protagonist: Gus Roberts, telecommunications equipment installer from 9 to 5 and ghost hunter in his free time. In fact, he pretty much does both at the same time, always combining business with pleasure (or with the creepy, I’d better say). Ever since his boss (Pegg) teamed him up with younger Elton John – a wuss with some skeletons in his closet (literally) and a suspicious ability to find secret doors – he can finally see some results to his years of work. Now also available to the public. On YouTube, where Gus has his own paranormal investigation channel: Truth Seekers.
With Elton John as cameraman and lightning rod for supernatural beings, Gus scours England, repairs routers and releases spirits trapped among the living. From one coincidence to another, a puzzle of a sinister (and very comical) global conspiracy takes shape, where even the company he works for happens to play a role in. This mesh of everyday life/work into the protagonists’ journey, their encounters with all sorts of colorful characters, is also one of the things that make Truth Seekers such an enjoyable series even when not much is happening – comparable to After Life, but with a great deal of humor (and of a different kind). Like in the case of After Life, it’s ultimately an “acquired taste”, but Truth Seekers also has the advantage of being a genre film.
In theory, Truth Seekers is a horror comedy, but as expected, the horror is rather there to be undermined. Pegg and Frost are very good at overturning genre conventions in a comical way, and that’s clear from the opening scene. Gus works around the house alone, fixes the ghost detector. For horror buffs, it’s obvious from the whole cinematic approach (staging, camera movement, framing, editing, etc.) that an appearance is about to pop up. A shadow quickly sneaks into the background, then floats menacingly behind the character. For Pegg-Frost fans, it’s obvious that a prank is what follows, there’s no surprise to its course. But the reward is worth it: the ghost is actually Gus’ father, a grumpy old man played excellently by Malcolm McDowell (yes, that Malcolm McDowell). Somehow, the presence of a legend like McDowell in such a role describes very well the fact that the series is not taking itself seriously.
Truth Seekers feels like a movie made between friends, with friends, just like the not-so-scary videos on Gus’ YouTube channel. But there’s nothing amateurish about it here, just a simplified script and a simple execution, which puts Truth Seekers somewhere between a 1950s matinee Sci-Fi, Ghostbusters and Scooby Doo (the minibus included). What holds everything together is ultimately the humor and a whole bunch of funny characters, who often solve the problem by tripping over it.
Truth Seekers is available on Amazon Prime Video