Every so often, a movie comes along that completely crushes you. It’s the type of movie that hits every mark on the emotional spectrum. You know what type of film I’m talking about. The movie that leaves you staring at the screen long after the credits have stopped rolling, challenging someone to be the brave audience member to stand first. The movie that makes your soul feel totally drained when you step out of the theater. The movie that triggers a four-hour heart-to-heart with your best friend. The movie that reminds you of the impact cinema can have.
Written and directed by 26-year-old Sam Levinson, Another Happy Day is one of these movies. The plot of the film is one we’re all familiar with: a dysfunctional family reunites at a wedding and all hell breaks loose. Secrets start to come out. Grudges are resurrected. Claws are sharpened. Total chaos and misery ensues for all. You get it.
So how did such a seemingly cliché story win the “Best Screenwriting” award at the Sundance Film Festival this year? The key reason is that, unlike similar movies such as Rachel Getting Married, Another Happy Day is an intricate character study of not just an entire family, but of depression as a whole.
At the core of the film is Lynn Hellman, played immaculately by Bill O’Reilly’s favorite actress, Ellen Barkin, as she travels to her parents’ small-town Maryland estate for her estranged son’s wedding. There, she must deal with not only demons from her own past, but also from the pasts of her four children.
Despite his many trips to rehab, Lynn’s teenage son Elliot (played fantastically by We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller) still can’t resist the desire to use anything he can to get high – including the prescription medication of Lynn’s dying father. And where most movies would cast a drug addict like Elliot as the black sheep of the family, Another Happy Day defies convention by making him the wise character. Besides, there can’t really be a black sheep in a family without any sense of unity to begin with.
“So basically, the only things connecting us are these fucked-up moments that all of us would rather forget?” he asks his mother. And with this question, Elliot sums up the basic plot structure of the film.
Later on in the movie, Elliot questions why people seem to only be able to come together during tragedy. “Maybe we’d all get along if we were here for a funeral instead of a wedding,” he astutely points out to his grandmother (a marvelous Ellen Burstyn). Heavy, right?
But what Elliot truly embodies is the degree of self-sacrifice Lynn must make to keep the shards of what’s left of her family intact. In a particularly poignant scene, Elliot calls his mother a “cunt” before pushing her to the ground. Seconds later, the two of them are sitting together on the floor, consoling one another as they dissect their conditions. It’s little moments like this that make Another Happy Day such a brutally honest film. It’s little moments like this that demonstrate what a martyr Lynn has to be. After all, her children are the only members of her family that haven’t completely rejected her. Yet.
Levinson’s script also expertly showcases the generational pass-down of depression, all the way from Lynn’s mother to the youngest member of the family, her son Ben, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s the various types of depression and the coping mechanisms each member of the Hellman clan have that draw the dividing lines among them.
In some way or another, all of the characters have been the catalysts of one another’s broken lives, triggering chain effects of regret and severed ties. For instance, there’s a reason Lynn’s daughter, Alice (Kate Bosworth at her finest), hasn’t seen her father, Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), since her parents’ divorce nearly a decade earlier. And it’s no mistake that she has sleeves specially sewn onto her maid of honor dress so as not to reveal her bare arms.
By the actual day of the wedding, the audience is already queasy from their ride on an emotional rollercoaster. After watching the days leading up to the event, they have cranked up their anxiety dials to their maximum levels. Just as Elliot wonders the night before, the audience contemplates whether the Hellmans will be able to put aside their issues long enough to celebrate one happy day. Or are everyone’s wounds too raw and deep to be ignored?
With the spotlight on them, the Hellmans must be on their best behavior. But that doesn’t negate the fact that you can still stab someone with a smile on your face. Take Paul’s second wife (a freshly scorned Demi Moore). Although she may not be the groom’s biological mother, she was the one who raised him. After giving a toast full of childhood memories, she challenges Lynn to come to the stage to give a toast about her son. The son who picked Lynn to fill the role of the groom’s mother in his wedding ceremony (#REVENGEALERT!).
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that when Another Happy Day was over, I did not for a moment get the sense that the problems in the family had been patched up. I didn’t think that Lynn would stop crying or that Elliot would stop doing drugs or that Alice would stop mutilating herself. But I appreciated that. Too few films are willing to cut that close to the truth we seem to be culturally afraid of. And in life, we don’t always get that “everything is going to be fine” moment that we count on in the movies.
That being said, a lot of mainstream audiences are uncomfortable with films that end without any happy–or at least just–resolutions. In The Basketball Diaries, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio’s former drug addict character is redeemed by becoming an anti-drug motivational speaker. In Requiem For A Dream, the characters are punished for their illegal habits. But too rarely do films choose not to resolve the conflicts at hand. Too seldom are the questions asked throughout a movie not answered.
Little wonder that Another Happy Day has received a rather lukewarm critical reception thus far. Hearing audience member’s inappropriate bursts of laughter throughout the movie and reading other reactions to it online, I felt that many viewers weren’t prepared for the detailed and often grim accounts of mental illness depicted here. But the sad reality is that a lot of the problems we have in life can’t be wrapped up simply because we crave closure. So why should film representations of these situations imply otherwise?
Yet at the end of the day, Another Happy Day is not a movie that will make you relinquish your sense of hope. In fact, despite the enormity of their problems, the Hellmans are there for one another. They take care of one another in their own unconventional and dark ways. And there’s certainly something extraordinary to say about that.
Another Happy Day is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.