“He was choking on Mars”
Buffalo, New York hosted its first ever World Premiere showing of a film to be released theatrically in America. The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival’s gold ticket event for 2009 was for the film What Goes Up, a story set in the week leading up to the Challenger disaster in New Hampshire, home of teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Writers Robert Lawson and Jonathan Glatzer, (who also directed), were in attendance to introduce their work and explain their hope to get audiences thinking about what it means to be a hero. Describing it as an example of tumultuousness and devastation breeding comedy, it is interesting to learn that we never see the space shuttle explode. The tragedy at hand is instead the suicide of a beloved teacher, one who may or may not have been having too close of a relationship with his students, and how the group of misfits he brought together and gave hope to for the future deal with it. Throw in Steve Coogan’s journalist, in town to report a space related puff piece, who had also been a college friend to the deceased, and you get a story that delves into some dark places, brings some genuine laughs mixed in with plenty of awkward ones, and asks some good questions. The whole definitely doesn’t add up to a success, but some of the parts do resonate.
Joining the filmmakers at the screening were a couple actresses, (introduced as two beautiful women, and you will see why this descriptor was used if you view the film because they are both uglified into weird, eccentric, and creepy girls), and a couple nice text messages from the two leads. Hilary Duff texted about missing the premiere, typing an “OMG” at the start of her regrets—how stereotypical—and Steve Coogan typed with some humor about how he was in New Zealand and was sure “it was nice in Buffalo as it is very nice here”. In the film, both of these actors are playing somewhat against the norm, and not necessarily to good effect. Duff is not a great actress to begin with, and here she is asked to handle some very hard subject matter as a girl who was in love with her teacher that just killed himself. She sees Coogan’s arrival as a way to fill the void, seducing him with her juvenile wiles while playing a troubled young girl, but trying too hard at times. As for Coogan, I’m not sure if he is cut out for serious fare. He is dealing with his own tragedy and professional lie, a falsified series of articles that could ruin his career if discovered during their Pulitzer Prize nomination. When he is utilizing sarcasm and his inherent goofiness, you do believe in his character, however, the filmmakers ask him to be completely serious at times, in close up no less, and unfortunately he doesn’t look pull it off.
In true indie film fashion, What Goes Up contains a bit more quirkiness than needed. I enjoyed the creepy girls the first couple times on screen, before they just got … creepy; Molly Shannon’s odd teacher, composer of “Blast Off” the musical, (wow is the song from this performance so intentionally head-shaking bad that you have to laugh), is very weird, and supposedly girlfriend to the dead teacher—a fact glossed over after a very brief mention; the theft by the children of their teacher’s body and coffin is unbelievable; and what’s with Coogan setting up toy figures to mimic the people he has met during his visit? A couple aspects to the script really do work, though, but you may miss them due to all the filler thrown your way. Just pay attention to the scenes pertaining to Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby as they shine throughout and make me want to watch them in The Wackness even more now.
Peck plays Jim, one of the students affected by the death, one who had been given direction by his “almost-priest” teacher. He looked up to and listened to the man only to find that he killed himself. When something like that occurs you can’t help but question the validity of what you had been told. Peck becomes jealous and angry towards Coogan for coming into town and basically moving into his idol’s shoes as he is viewed as a replacement, even becoming the object of affection from Duff’s Lucy, the girl who loved him. Peck’s hero is proved to be fallible and only when he himself prevails in a situation that could have resulted in the death of a baby, is he able to let go of the memory. As for Thirlby, she is absolutely fantastic. An abused child, assumed to be carrying her uncle’s offspring in her stomach, Thirlby’s Tess has experienced pain firsthand and sees Coogan as someone just looking to prey on her friends’ emotions. Her life has built paranoia and a need to be the hero in her mind, going so far as to lie about something that she knows isn’t true, but possibly could eventually become so, like the relationship between a teacher and student. Her monologue at the end, explaining her motivations throughout the film to Coogan, is a powerhouse moment, made all the more impressive by seeing Coogan’s odd expressions in reaction shots. Thirlby acts him under the table.
But Coogan’s Campbell Babbitt has his own moments as well, a hero in his own rite after writing inspirational articles in the paper about his subject and eventual love “Angela” and her selfless work done to honor her slain son. To add one more instance of moral ambiguity to a film ripe with pedophilia, teen sex—including that with a paraplegic girl, shoplifting, and misguided anger on behalf of many, Coogan finds himself caught in a scandal still hidden as “Angela” killed herself after the first story he wrote. His love for her too much, he continued her story with lies, lies that helped people and brought happiness to many. So, as a school teacher is about to go into space as a hero, eventually to keep that title once her shuttle disaster never allows her to get there, in the backdrop, we see adults and children experiencing the many different definitions of that term—hero. Sometimes that label means making a hard choice, lying and deceiving for the greater good. If What Goes Up gets anything right, it is this fact: that heroes are who we make them, subjective and often privy to debate. If the film focused more on this theme, leaving much of the precious quirk so abundantly prevalent on the cutting room floor, it might have been something I could have recommended more. Maybe the play on which it is based gets it done more successfully; as a film, though, it’s more uncomfortable than thought provoking.
What Goes Up 5/10 | ★ ★
 Hilary Duff stars as Lucy and Steve Coogan stars as Campbell Babbitt in Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Olivia Thirlby stars as Tess in Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 A scene from Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.