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The sort of quirky, insiderish L.A. dramedy that tries but fails to make us care about its troubled young characters who are, you guessed it, looking for happiness.
"The Happys" is a film about self-definition that itself doesn't know what it wants to be - a situation that renders directors Tom Gould and Jon Serpe's indie effort a tonally confused slog.
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE CHEESE CURDS - My Review of THE HAPPYS (4 Stars)
You know that horrible cliché used by filmmakers when they say the location they used is like another character in the film? I think the publicity surrounding SEX AND THE CITY ruined this for me, and ever since, I demand that location be firmly in the background where it belongs! Thank goodness for THE HAPPYS, an unassuming little gem written and directed by John Serpe and Tom Gould, which doesn't push its Los Angeles neighborhood locale (Los Feliz is the translation of the movie's title), yet somehow manages to make its essence essential to its story.
The film follows its naive heroine, Tracy (Amanda Bauer), who drives across the country from Wisconsin to live with her boyfriend Mark (Jack DePew), who has booked a lead role in a major film. Tracy represents women who define themselves by their relationships with men. When she arrives, all she wants to do is make a home and cook for her man while he goes off to work. Despite our #metoo times, we still live in a patriarchal society, and the Tracys of the world are more common than people think. It's easy to assume that the people who live in between New York and LA have caught up, but it's not always the case. My father was a physician, but the Ohio in him mispronounced a style of Asian cuisine as "Thigh Food". Tracy is that girl who walks into an Artisanal Cheese Shop and asks for Wisconsin Cheddar. You can take a person out of the Midwest, but...well...you know the rest.
Tracy seems to take to her new life, despite feeling lonely and friendless as Mark works long hours, so, of course, we wouldn't have a movie if a complication didn't arise. When she walks in on Mark having sex with another man, we have a movie off and running in quite unexpected directions, and in this case, a uniquely feminist tale.
In the wake of the incident, Tracy's world opens up to her and to us as we meet the locals, including her landlady Luann (a warm, wonderful Janeane Garofalo), a former TV star who collects the rent and loves to snoop on her tenant. There's also her mysterious shut-in of a neighbor, Sebastian (Rhys Ward), a hilarious gay couple played by Stephen Guarino and Will Bethencourt, who also produced), and Ricky (Arturo del Puerto), a charming yet failing food truck owner. Without giving away what happens, Tracy's world opens up to her as we witness a sweet, lovely community come together.
On paper, we've seen this film a gazillion times. In 1985, Susan Dev and Thomas Hulce did some community building of their own in the little seen ECHO PARK. These fish out of water stories may be a dime a dozen, but tone and specificity are what make THE HAPPYS stand out...that and the fantastic performances all across the board. Teetering between rom-com and layered drama, THE HAPPYS finds its sweet spot. Tracy's initially sunny disposition gives way to a tremendous amount of pain, all of which is necessary to evolve.
DePew plays Mark as the beautiful but narcissistic sociopath who literally feels like wallpaper in this city. Forced into the closet by his intense agent (Melissa McBride of THE WALKING DEAD - she kicks ass on that show and she kicks ass here), Mark could have so easily come across as this film's villain. Serpe and Gould, however, have something else in mind with him, including enough empathy to make him hugely relatable. He's not out or as politically aware as his secret boyfriend (a scene stealing Brian Jordan Alvarez), but you come to care for him, especially in a knockout of a scene in which he lays out the bare, raw truth to a pained Tracy. I felt as invested in Mark's journey in this film as I did Tracy's, which is a testament to the smart choices made throughout.
The overly tanned, agoraphobic Sebastian may feel like an odd contrivance, but Ward goes all in with his quirky performance, eventually arriving at a stunning moment where he lets us in on his pain. What starts as a cartoon of a character becomes someone to really rally behind. I find a little magic in movies where characters like this capture the attention and the love of people like LuAnn and Tracy. It's that generosity of spirit that makes me cry.
That's not to say this is a downer of a film. It has plenty of comedy, but none of it feels forced. It tackles serious issues about truth-telling, forging ones own destiny, the consequences of the closet, and the importance of friendships in our lives. Aesthetically, this movie doesn't set the world on fire. Made on a micro-budget, the filmmakers keeps things mostly handheld, plain, and simple. Los Feliz feels like Los Feliz in that blown-out, too sunny, hipster way. In other words, it makes sense just as it is, an intimate tale told in a quiet, natural, lovely way.
Bauer carries this film magnificently. She has that goofy quality of a younger Toni Collette that draws you in, yet she slyly deepens as the story progresses. Now trust me, she doesn't turn into Wonder Woman, but she finds her own voice while still retaining her sweet essence. Small films like this work best in baby steps. I believed in Tracy as a person whose bubble bursts when she finds out the world isn't a Magic Kingdom. She may not find perfection, but she finds her tribe. Don't we all want that? See THE HAPPYS if you feel you need a little Midwest in your life right about now.
Look for THE HAPPYS in limited theatrical release now and soon streaming on demand.
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