What Goes Up

'What Goes Up' often comes right back down

Hilary Duff is one of the misfit students in ''What Goes Up.'' Hilary Duff is one of the misfit students in ''What Goes Up.'' (Paul Michaud And Marcel Williams/Sony Pictures)
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2009
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Campbell Babbitt (Steve Coogan) is an emotionally boyish British newspaper reporter sent, as his New York editor puts it, "to Siberia," a.k.a. New Hampshire in January. His assignment is to cover the local hoopla surrounding the Challenger space shuttle liftoff. It's a few days before January 28, 1986. No one yet knows Christa McAuliffe's ship will be destroyed in an explosion. Babbitt only knows some story might be gleaned from hanging out at the high school where McAuliffe teaches.

When he arrives in town (oddly never identified as Concord and, sadly, shot in British Columbia), he discovers another story. An old college friend, who teaches at the school, has unexpectedly died. "Mr. C," as the students called him, has created a social safety net for a group of misfits, Tess (Olivia Thirlby) and Lucy (Hilary Duff), among them. Now they're adrift.

You know Mr. C's crew are oddballs because one's in a wheelchair, another steals lustful looks at his breast-feeding neighbor, and the two nerdiest girls are as inseparable as conjoined twins. Kudos to the makeup department for pulling no punches; except for Duff and Thirlby, these teens are portrayed with glorious geekness, pimples and all.

Generations of backward-looking filmmakers tend to tackle the minefield of high school, and first-time feature director Jonathan Glatzer joins this "Breakfast Club." Glatzer's script, co-written with Robert Lawson, stretches thin to cover a swath of heavy themes: secrets and lies, the vagaries of grief, the role of heroes, teenage desire, and the need for belonging. Not to mention ethics: Babbitt has bent the truth in the telling of another newspaper story. Mission control: overload, overload.

The tone rockets wildly from madcap - yes, the kids steal Mr. C's coffin - to sincere. There's even a romantic subplot between the reporter and one of the 17-year-olds. Ugh. But Thirlby ("Juno," "The Wackness") emerges unscathed; hiding behind her long black hair, she's bitter and believable.

What's most unconvincing is why Babbitt opens up to these kids. Or, for that matter, why the misfits would accept him. But then again, high school never made much sense.

WHAT GOES UP Directed by: Jonathan Glatzer

Starring: Steve Coogan, Olivia Thirlby, Hilary Duff, Molly Shannon

Running time: 104 minutes

At: Somerville Theatre

Rated: R (sexual situations, lustful teenage angst)

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