With a tall, gawky frame, shock of curly white hair, and perpetually blissed-out expression, Tore (Julius Feldmeier) makes for a conspicuously awkward adolescent, even before the film he’s in reveals much about him. He looks odd. He isn’t cool. And yet there’s some animating force within him—and that force, it turns out, is Jesus. Based on a true story, the brutal German drama Nothing Bad Can Happen has a half-ironic title: Bad things can and do happen to Tore, who endures escalating torments and abuse, but to him, it’s a matter of perspective, of facing whatever trial the Lord has decided to put him through. If it’s his mission to turn the other cheek, Tore will do it even if he knows that cheek will get bruised, too. Writer-director Katrin Gebbe rubs viewers’ faces in this dog dish of a film, with the promise that some sliver of transcendence will redeem it. But it’s all dog dish.
As the film opens, Tore is running with the “Jesus Freaks,” a small collective of Christian punks in Hamburg who have the requisite spiked hair, piercings, tattoos, and anarchy T-shirts, but use their weekly club shows to sing the Lord’s praises. Tore doesn’t appear to have a family—his past is left wisely unclear—so for now, he’s crashing with a fellow Jesus Freak and living off government stipends. After he suffers an epileptic fit at a show, a sympathetic adult, Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak) scoops him up and gives him shelter in his dilapidated house for the night. That temporary arrangement turns permanent, and Tore becomes part of Benno’s family, which includes his distant wife Astrid (Annika Kuhl), a girl named Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof) who’s Tore’s age, and a little moppet named Dennis (Til Theinert). But Benno’s behavior soon grows erratic and violent, and it becomes clear that his family, which now includes Tore, lives in fear of his eruptions.
Nothing Bad Can Happen recalls Lars von Trier’s habit of putting virtuous heroines through the wringer; as with Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves, Tore’s expressions of faith are answered by abuse and degradation, and his relationship with God is tested in the process. Gebbe has a fine sense of place, evoking the forgotten fringes where Tore resides, from the couch at a makeshift Jesus Freaks commune to a tent in Benno’s backyard, where his only visitors are Sanny, a stray cat, and further misfortune. Tore has no resources and few options, and his faith has encouraged a dangerous obstinacy with regard to Benno: He comes to believe that Jesus has sent this terrible man not as a protector, but as a challenge. Practically speaking, that means passively accepting whatever sadistic horrors Benno throws at him.
It’s as simple as that, really. The trouble with Nothing Bad Can Happen, especially once the ugliness gets ramped up in the second half, is that Gebbe’s focus on sending Tore through the spiritual gauntlet overwhelms the relationships she developed more carefully in the early going. Benno, in particular, is a blank spot: His hardness could be read initially as blue-collar machismo, an attempt to make a man out of Tore, whose passivity and godliness disgusts him. But he transforms into evil incarnate, an unknowable source of pain who exists to bring the boy along on his schematic journey. The film deposits its villain in a dark, all-too-familiar place.