It’s a cliché to say that all films made somewhere near the Arctic circle are Bergmanesque but “Happy Happy” is. There is a gentleness about them which lacks in the sometimes judgmental world of American cinema.
Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky’s feature debut, originally titled “Insanely Happy,” (though there may be something lost in translation) is the story of a housewife who attempts to remain happy as her family is coming apart. Kaja is concerned because her husband doesn’t appear to love her anymore, her son is constantly irritated with her, and the bleak snowy landscape is starting to overcome her and her surroundings.
Perhaps as an attempt to get more social interaction, Kaja and her husband decide to rent out a second house right next to their own; the new tenants are city people, a high-powered lawyer, her husband, and their adopted African son.
Before long, Kaja and the man next door are having an affair; before the film’s end we learn that the lawyer had previously cheated on her husband, and that Kaja’s husband might be in the closet. The two boys also begin playing a disturbing game in which Kaja’s son pretends to be a slave driver, tying up the tenants’ son (who doesn’t speak) and saying he owns him.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in nonstandard family dynamics.
Though “Happy Happy” is a good discovery overall (it won the narrative World Cinema Jury Award at Sundance this year), the story was told unevenly. It’s often a challenge to meld comedy and drama without everything disintegrating narrative-wise. When you add this much sexual tension to a comedic storyline, it’s a bigger challenge.
And given the slavery storyline it might not get distribution, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out at Sundance.
But let’s hope it gets a fair shot at the arthouse circuit.
(Lita Robinson recently covered the Provincetown Film Festival, where “Happy, Happy” had its U.S. premiere)