New Directors Film Festival: Happy, Happy

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Happy, Happy

Directed by Anne Sewitsky

Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll

Norway, 2010

Seeing the word “Happy” in the title of an independent film, and especially a European independent film, is a pretty good indicator that it’s being used ironically. Such is definitely the case in Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky’s debut film Happy, Happy.

Happy, Happy tells the story of Kaja, a resilient optimist determined to hang on to her rosy outlook despite warning signs that her marriage is falling apart.  Kaja’s husband, Eirik, spends weeks away on hunting trips and hasn’t made love to her in over a year.  Even her son seems to tolerate her more than he respects or loves her.  But Kaja thinks she notices an opportunity for things to improve when a stylish, seemingly adoring couple moves into the house next door, but as Kaja tries to force a relationship between the two families, it becomes obvious that the new neighbors have problems of their own and have moved to the country in order to escape them.  As secrets and suppressed resentments get exposed, neuroses spill over from one family to the other and no character—parent, spouse, or child—is left unscathed.

The comedy of Happy, Happy relies heavily on awkward moments, and thanks mostly to the understated performances of a talented cast, every uncomfortable moment produces a chuckle or two and builds towards the overall poignancy of the film’s message.  As Kaja and Sigve, her handsome new neighbor, uncomfortably address the impromptu blowjob that initiates their extramarital affair, the shyness both characters bring to the conversation makes this development endearing despite the social impropriety of their relationship. Scriptwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll never wastes a joke.  She uses humor wisely to point out absurdities in human behavior and the futility of resisting necessary change.  Her themes will hit home with anyone who has ever tried to ignore a problem instead of dealing with it head on.

The character dynamics, especially between spouses, in this film compete with its snow-ridden outback setting in terms of coldness. Agnes Kittelsen in the leading role provides the narrative nearly all of its warmth.  Sigve’s uptight Danish wife, Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), might find Kaja’s enthusiasm overbearing, but audiences will sense her delicate state of mind and sympathize when the cracks finally start to appear in her persistent smile.  Kaja has had to overcome a parentless childhood and a loveless marriage –  it’s no wonder she’s so starved for attention.  Sigve’s affections sustain her for a while, but inevitably it becomes obvious that this relationship can’t continue without devastating repercussions to Sigve’s equally-to-blame-but-repentant wife and their all-too-innocent adopted son.  The movie reaches its culmination on Christmas Eve, a day when traditionally families are meant to come together, but this is when Kaja finally has to force herself to face the fact that she’ll receive no miracles and her family will never be the same.

Sewitsky chooses to punctuate the film’s act breaks with peppy performances from an all-male quartet, and this helps to keep the tone upbeat and lighthearted.  There is no easy way out of the difficult situations the characters find themselves in, but as things draw to a close, the hopeful suggestion that Kaja will emerge a stronger and more independent person for all her suffering presides over any lingering melancholy.  The audience member will feel justified that her optimism was deserved after all.  Happy, Happy is a sweet little movie likely to leave audiences smiling in the end.

Kenneth Broadway

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