What Goes Up

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
What Goes Up Movie Poster Image
High school drama tale is too edgy for young teens.
  • R
  • 2009
  • 107 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

So many of us want to be heroes, but heroism doesn’t come easy. Also: Two people who may, on the surface, seem like polar opposites can find common ground.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Everyone in the film is saddled with issues galore: the girl who capitalizes on her looks; the teen who revels in his moody milieu; the teacher who’s running away from his own demons. Almost all, however, find a way to conquer them, or close.


A character is revealed to have been sexually abused by an uncle. (Later, she appears to need an abortion.) Some yelling and shoving.


Teen girls flirt with older men; a high school boy masturbates as he watches a neighbor nurse her child; couples kiss. 


“Damn,” s--t” and “f--k” are all fair game.


Signage/labels such as the Mister Softee truck and National Geographic are visible.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some teen drinking, drug use.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the film delves into mature subject mature, including sexuality, death (suicide, for one), abortion, and teenage and middle-age ennui. Most of the teenage characters, and many of the adults, too, are pushing their boundaries and defining themselves, sometimes in ways that seem destructive. One girl appears to flaunt her sexuality, especially at older males. There’s also a fair amount of swearing. By way of foreshadowing, astronaut Christa McAuliffe's death during a failed 1986 takeoff looms over the storyline.

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What's the story?

Once-hardboiled journalist Campbell Babbitt (Steve Coogan) is dispensed to New Hampshire to cover celebrations for a local hero, astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who's about to launch into space. Takeoff has been delayed, however, so Babbitt decides to look up an old acquaintance, a beloved teacher at the high school. But sadly, it appears the man has just committed suicide. The death spurs Babbitt to investigate, but it soon turns personal when he befriends a ragtag group of students (Hilary Duff, Olivia Thirlby, Josh Peck) grieving the educator’s death, especially one young woman to whom Babbitt is drawn. And that’s not all: Babbitt, too, finds himself mourning the loss of a former subject of his articles who became so much more.

Is it any good?

With a strong cast and an ambitious concept, WHAT GOES UP is a movie you want to like. Sadly, it never takes flight, hunkered down by a bloated, overwrought storyline. It aims for edge but comes across as much too earnest, and not in any endearing way. There’s a coffin scene, for instance, that simply tries too hard to be both profound and ghoulish. As they’re written, the teen characters, while not stereotypical in the sense that there’s a jock, a beauty, and a bookworm, come across as textbook characters meant to fit the “downtrodden anti-heroes” slot.

Coogan is a strong actor, but he’s all wrong for the film. His eccentricities are muted, exchanged for generic foibles that don’t make for a memorable character. He turns into a guru of sorts for a group of outcast students, yet it’s not clear what makes him compelling. A side plot about journalism and the pitfalls of getting too close to a source intrigues, but doesn’t pay off, perhaps because it’s not explored in any meaningful way other than how a misstep has fed Babbitt’s tortured soul.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the teacher-student dynamics portrayed here. How realistic is it? How challenging must it be to teach teens who are trying to forge their own identities?

  • What does Babbitt have in common with the students he's trying to profile?

  • How difficult is it as a journalist to cultivate a source's trust but still maintain distance?

Movie details

  • In theaters: June 16, 2009
  • On DVD or streaming: June 16, 2009
  • Cast: Hilary Duff, Steve Coogan
  • Studio: Sony Pictures
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run time: 107 minutes
  • MPAA rating: R
  • MPAA explanation: sexuality, language and some drug use, all involving teens.
  • Last updated: September 21, 2019

Our editors recommend

For kids who love high school stories

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