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Happy Face
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by Jay Seaver

"Not the bad idea it sounds like."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 21: "Happy Face" is the odd movie where nothing that anybody does ever actually seems like a good idea, to a degree that goes beyond basic human fallibility, but the result still mostly works. It's the sort of movie where the makers' hearts are generally in the right place and which at least has the benefit of being something you don't see every day, and that can count for a lot.

It centers on a Montreal support group for people who, whether by birth or happenstance, have some sort of disfigurement - former police officer Jocko (E.R. Ruiz) was burned, but 75-year-old Otis (David Roche), otherwise-fashionable Maggie (Alison Midstokke), and shy Beckie (Cyndy Nicholsen) have lived with this most of their lives - led by Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), who feels she can relate because she's carrying some extra pounds. The latest member is "Augustin" who has a secret - his actual name is Stanislas and the 19-year-old is actually quite handsome, using tape and bandages to distort his appearance. This deception doesn't last long, but Stanislas (Robin L'Houmeau) says he is not mocking them, but is instead trying to build the skills to deal with his mother, whose cancer treatments have left her a shell of herself. Let him stay, and he'll be their link to a world they have difficulty approaching.

Does this really make sense? Kind of, but it takes a certain amount of self-awareness for it to work. The group chooses to welcome Stanislas in part because Vanessa doesn't want them to; she means well but can't help but be mildly patronizing in how she assumes she has the same sort of problem or that you can make a breakthrough by following directions. Actress Debbie Lynch-White and filmmaker Alexandre Franchi do well to resist validating any desire Vanessa has to be the hero of the story, letting her be testy at times or, while not phony, not quite as deeply invested as she thinks. She's never insincere, but there's a certain deliberate clarity to how she represents the way that well-intentioned people can approach those who are different.

Stan is trickier; his intentions are more self-serving but he story behind them can often be a bit oblique; especially since his adventures with the group are not just often fun but allow him to avoid something else very well, enough to make one forget just why he's hiding. Robin L'Houmeau exudes the sort of natural charisma one might expect from Stan - "easy charm" feels like a particularly apt descriptor, as if he has never been particularly challenged and finds himself frustrated by the whole idea of being pushed emotionally, treating things as easier than the actually are and snapping when this doesn't work out for him. L'Houmeau shines in those moments when the facade cracks a bit and he snaps a little. Not a lot, but just enough to make it clear he needs a different kind of help than this particular group offers. It's a good performance and a decent stary but the parts that are personal for him tend to get overwhelmed.

That's in large part because the rest the group is compelling; Franchi and co-writer Joelle Bourjolly don't just give them small ambitions thwarted by a lack of confidence in their appearances but genuine challenges that certainly have roots there but are also more broadly relatable (parents who don't believe in someone, a relationship whose collapse was not cause by the obvious thing but cannot be entirely disentangled from it). They're played by an appealing group of mostly nonprofessional actors rather than people in prosthetic makeup, and they're a good group: None seem particularly intimidated by the camera or unnatural playing to it. Franchi never loses the outsider point of view, and while the individual threads can sometimes vary in their execution, they are generally held together by solid filmmaking.

With this group of people mostly trying to do their best, the film is generally able to get past how they generally have messed-up ideas about how to go about it. The story is at least novel enough to make it work, especially with an impressive cast that is able to get the most out of their unlikely situations.

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originally posted: 07/02/19 09:54:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Boston Underground Film Festival 21 For more in the Boston Underground Film Festival 21 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2019 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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