Childhood and adolescence are often characterized as much by fear and cruelty as innocence and wonder. The soul-crushing side of growing up and the casual cruelty of boys navigating the bleak limbo between childhood and adulthood animate 1983's Zappa, a masterfully bleak coming-of-age drama from Pelle The Conqueror director Bille August that's been packaged with its sequel, Twist+Shout, for twice the angst and twice the despair.
Zappa stars Adam Tønsberg as a Danish teen pulled in opposite directions by Morten Hoff, a chubby goofball in no hurry to grow up, and Peter Reichhardt, a lanky psychopath-in-training who holds out the deceptive prospect of friendship as bait to manipulate people. Reichhardt's sadism and power trips eventually push Tønsberg away, but even Reichhardt is something of a victim. The product of a loveless, rapidly deteriorating upper-class union, he plays the role of the malevolent dictator with his peers, but in the adult world, he's helpless and alone. (That theme gets picked up in Twist+Shout.) "We're in this together," Reichhardt keeps telling Tønsberg, attempting to create the illusion of solidarity, but the film's unnerving power comes from its realization that everyone is doomed to go through adolescence alone. Zappa contains an unusually high level of violence, but the blows that sting the most aren't physical.
The 1984 sequel Twist+Shout catches up with Tønsberg as he immerses himself in the cultural tidal wave of BeatlemaniaBeatle boots, middling cover band, and all. Twist+Shout initially seems far more upbeat than its predecessor. Thanks to pop music and the infatuation of young love, two of the elements that make adolescence just barely tolerable, there's finally some joy to go along with all that pain. But the responsibilities of adulthood are soon thrust upon Tønsberg, well before he has the tools to deal with them. Lars Simonsen co-stars as Tønsberg's friend, a mournful but good-hearted teen chafing under the dual responsibility of looking after his sick mother and dealing with his harsh, controlling father. The peppy Beatles songs that give the film's opening a driving backbeat become little more than a faint murmur as Tønsberg's ecstatic relationship with pretty Camilla Søeberg takes a dark turn that sends the film reeling away from comedy.
An optimistic opening makes Twist+Shout even more harrowing than its predecessor, which is bleak from the first frame to the last. The film's early flirtation with hope and the possibility of a real, profound connection ultimately make its descent into anguish all the more wrenching. There are no happy endings in Zappa or Twist+Shout, just the hard-won wisdom that comes with facing the worst life has to offer.