Happy Face (Movie Review)

There is a popular saying that you should always be kind to everyone you meet as you never know what they are going through. It looks pretty as a motivational meme on social media, though very few people actually live by this standard. So what if we could make a global New Year’s resolution to base another person’s beauty not on their physical appearance but on their character?

A new Drama entitled Happy Face will ask you to do just this when its first group session meets in select theaters on Friday, January 1, 2021. However, you can also delve into therapy from the comfort of your own couch beginning Tuesday, January 5th, when the film arrives to Digital and On Demand thanks to Dark Star Pictures.

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Based on an idea from Director Alexandre Franchi (Fata Morgana short 2002, The Wild Hunt 2009), who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Joelle Bourjolly (Terminal Venus short 2003, The Wild Hunt 2009), Happy Face centers around Stan (Robin L’Houmeau: Le jeu series, Goddess of the Fireflies 2020). In the early ‘90s, the 19-year-old French Canadian finds himself estranged from his emotionally manipulative, cancer-stricken mother (Noémie Kocher: That Day 2007, La Garçonne mini-series). Once struggling to balance his university work with her care, in her absence he falls into a bout of what we shall term ‘productive avoidance’.

Disguised, he begins to attend therapy sessions for ‘disfigured’ patients in hopes of finding a way in which to reconnect with his mom. Instead, Stan discovers a group of unique personalities, each of whom is facing their own internal battle. Group leader Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White: Unité 9 series, La Bolduc 2018), a former beauty queen, struggles with her weight, so she understands all too well the harsh realities of the world in which the sassy Maggie (Alison Midstokke: Deviant 2017, Chained for Life 2018), an aspiring model, aims to find work. Buck (Cyndy Nicholsen: Slamdance TV 2019) just wants to be loved by her mother, and 72-year-old Otis (David Roche in a stellar acting debut) is desperate to reconnect with his family.

Some have more straightforward issues, like cancer survivor Ronald (Pierre Rivet), who wants to return to work without being judged, and Leslie (Pauline Beal), who just wants to go on a good date. Meanwhile, former police officer Jocko (E.R. Ruiz: Sons of Anarchy series, The Bad Batch 2016) is angry at his cruel twist of fate, and Dave (Daniel Boloten), a former daredevil, just wants to feel ‘cool’ again. And though some might consider them ‘freaks,’ they are just like Stan: each with their own set of problems.

When he is quickly outed as being ‘normal’, the fiercely idealistic Stan offers to impart his coping skills on the group in exchange for their acceptance. What enfolds is a story of embracing the beauty inside each of us without being afraid to get ugly to survive in this monstrous world.

Presented in a mix of English and French (with English subtitles, as needed), the award-winning film had an impressive festival run before recently arriving to a wider audience. A modern Drama, Happy Face explores concepts of acceptance and avoidance, along with a myriad of psychological issues, which, given its setting in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group, makes sense. Because of this, with all of its subject matter being of a sensitive nature, the story is apt to stir up a maelstrom of emotions in some viewers.

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This is an issue that is touched on within the film, as it begins by asking us to consider what would make someone ‘different.’ Within the on-screen action this is done by pitting the therapeutic group against one another: each judging the others as being ‘not different enough’ to be deserving of their empathy. Into this pity party, Stan enters and begins to stir the pot further with his ‘normalcy’. Though as the individuals begin to trust one another, we see the true issues that each is facing: for Jocko it is clearly anger, not burn scars, while for Buck it is a desperate need to feel loved by a mother who has made her feel ugly.

For some people this might distract from the elephant in the room—nearly all of these people have facial scarring and/or suffer from diseases that alter their visages. The sultry Maggie, for example, is afflicted with Treacher-Collins Syndrome. But it feels obvious that the intention is to focus on the actual individual and not their disease or ailment, as we all want to feel sensual but we don’t all have TCS. In this there’s a relatability but also the risk of generalization; as these issues are so vastly different, trying to make them comparable is like, well, that whole apples and oranges thing.

Thus, the takeaway is intended to be that we each have our ‘cross to bear,’ if you will: whether it be an emotionally manipulative mother, feeling self-conscious in a bathing suit, or losing our nose to skin cancer. This generalization works as it’s presented, but only if you don’t overthink it. Clearly the filmmakers wish to ask viewers to allow themselves to appreciate the rose-colored view presented herein of a world where a young man can, through Dungeons & Dragons and Don Quixote analogies, inspire a group of people to achieve greatness. That achievement being, in this instance, to raise their middle fingers to the cruel among us and tell them where to go.

Say what you will about how the tale is realized, but kudos to Franchi for providing viewers with legitimate representation in the film, and doing so with such a phenomenal cast. Delivering all of the necessary nuance, and tossing in some self-deprecating humor here and there, these talented men and women put their heart and soul into their performances. Roche’s Otis, who has a major plot twist, is a sunflower who lights up the room, while Nicholsen (Buck) portrays sincere pain and agony with her soft words. Midstokke, as Maggie, is fiery, while Ruiz delivers a powerful performance as a man who is understandably bitter. The glue that binds them all together, L’Houmeau (Stan) and Lynch-White (Vanessa), give powerful performances in their roles—offering viewers a carefully choreographed assessment of clinical vs. immersive approaches to behavioral therapy.

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Somehow it all works, at least for this particular bleeding heart. Sure, Happy Face shares an underlying optimism with other feel-good films that turn the geek into the prom queen or the biggest loser into a supermodel. But here there is a value to the message that reaches far beyond being a decent human being, and that is a reminder that we are all the same beneath the skin. Consequently, this is also the saddest thing about Happy Face—knowing that, for some people, this will be an eye-opener. (Worse yet, that others won’t even get the message.)

Considering what the past twelve months have put us all through, showing kindness to the people you cross on the street does not seem like such a ridiculous request. We are all survivors, and Happy Face is a tender-hearted f-bomb to the idea that one of us is worth more than another. Appreciating the cruel irony of its ending, Cryptic Rock gives Happy Face 4.5 of 5 stars. Whether you see the film or not, please be kind to one another!

Dark Star Pictures

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