Katrin Gebbe's Nothing Bad Can Happen is a gutting German drama that asks if martyrs can be accomplices to their own torture. Its modern saint is a homeless teenager named Tore (Julius Feldmeier), a born-again punk rocker who rolls with a group called The Jesus Freaks. He doesn't attend an official church. The Freaks' mass is a punk show that preaches old-school Samaritanism and the simple tenet of doing what Jesus would do, assuming Jesus loves thrashing to bands with names such as Magic Messiah. And Tore, as thin as a straw and as pale as a piece of paper, is in the center of the mosh pit bopping without fear of being crumpled.
With his platinum curls and angelic asexuality, Tore looks like a cherub who fell from the Sistine Chapel and grew up on the streets. He has no family, and no explanation for why not. But from the eager way he smiles at the world, we sense that this is a boy who had his childhood stripped away, fought to reclaim it, and now wears his innocence like a suit of armor.
Naturally, Tore comes across as a bit of a nut. When Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), the charismatic patriarch of a four-person family, first meets him in a parking lot, Tore promises he can jump-start a dead minivan with prayer. Benno suppresses a smirk. But God, or a devilish coincidence, makes the battery work. As Benno and family — wife (Annika Kuhl) and stepkids Dennis (Til-Niklas Theinert) and sullen 15-year-old Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof) — drive away, Tore is left wondering if God the magical mechanic has given him a sign: Save this family.
In turn, Benno thinks he can save Tore from being a squatter by giving him a tent in the family's Hamburg backyard, and maybe peel some cash from the kid's welfare checks. The jobless, beer-drinking dad is fascinated by this wisp of a boy who looks like a pushover and stands by his principles with a spine of steel.
But as Tore's radiant goodness lights up a room, it tends to cast everyone else in the shadows; the ex-roommate who brought him into The Freaks grumbles, "When you were here, I was somehow compelled to screw up." Benno's already a charming screw-up, and next to Tore, he feels like the devil. But who could blame Benno for rolling his eyes when the sanctimonious kid turns down a brewski with, "I prefer the Holy Spirit"?
Benno's swaggering alpha and Tore's unblemished beta are as combustible as fire and oxygen. If he'd adopted a party-hardy teen, Benno might have been chosen to be a protector. Here, with a kid whose very existence feels like a rebuke, he becomes a villain. Tore's blundered into a family that's already tangled in jealousy and tension, all of which Gebbe implies in glances: a stare held too long, a laugh that's too forced, a sidestep that evades an unwelcome touch.
As Benno, afraid of losing his family's awe and obedience, forces Tore to submit to his authority by fetching drinks, forgiving his "joking" punch in the nose and much, much worse, we realize that they're both drawn to the abuse: Benno because he's insecure, and Tore because he's certain this is another of God's trials. Hey, the ancient saints endured bruises, starvation and blindness without complaint.
Their battles are agonizing. It's like a revenge flick where the hero refuses vengeance. We want that catharsis, but if Tore ever stopped turning the other cheek and sank to our level, he'd lose the only thing he has left: forgiveness, a weapon that can't be taken away.
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Tore grows to love daughter Sanny with a purity that transcends hormones; he recoils when she suggests they off her stepdad with rat poison But she, too, struggles to keep respecting this boy who won't fight back in the ways she understands.
In interviews, and in the opening credits of the film, Gebbe claims that Nothing Bad Can Happen is based on true events. She's never given specifics and must have taken so many liberties with the story that it's impossible to turn up the real case. No matter. The dynamic is real enough. It's a small-scale version of what kept David Koresh's followers in their Waco bunker — the more they felt under attack from infidels, the more they sought martyrdom to prove they were right.
Gebbe never asks us to believe in Tore's God, but she asks us to honor his beliefs. She's found an incredible conduit in Feldmeier, an actor making his major film debut in a role so perfect for his alien innocence that it's hard to imagine him being anyone else. As he suffers, we suffer with him, only instead of elevating his agonies into macho martyrdom, that odd Hollywood contradiction that roused audiences of The Passion of the Christ and Lone Survivor, Nothing Bad Can Happen whispers that maybe no God is watching his pain. If so, it's left only to us damnable sinners on earth to bear witness to Tore's sacrifice and leave the theater rattled to recognize that this boy has bled for peace with an inner strength most mortals will never possess.
NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN | Written and directed by Katrin Gebbe | Drafthouse Films | Downtown Independent