This happens every year. You’ve seen all there is to see, you’re ready to finalize your top 10, and then you discover that hidden gem. It was Blue Valentine last year, Hunger the year before, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, we’re presented with Another Happy Day, a miraculous, devastatingly precise achievement from first time director Sam Levinson.
This is a film that is so real, so unbiased in its candor, that it is at times extremely difficult to watch. There is no violence, no extreme drug use, and no sex whatsoever. Sticks and stones may break the characters’ bones, but words can certainly kill them.
Another Happy Day revolves around a family coming together to celebrate a wedding. Come together they do, celebrate they do not. The family depicted in Levinson’s drama mock, ridicule, fight, degrade; not for a laugh, not at the expense of someone else. They do it because they do it. This is simply who they are.
Don’t worry if the modern family structure loses you, as it is executed far better on screen than in print. Lynn (Ellen Barkin) is the mother of Dylan, the man to be wed. But as was contingent in her divorce of her first husband, Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), Lynn raised their daughter, Alice (Kate Bosworth) while Paul and his new wife, Patty (Demi Moore) raised Dylan. Once Lynn got remarried to Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn), they had two children, Ben and Elliot (Ezra Miller).
When Lynn, Ben, and Elliot arrive at Lynn’s parents home (played by Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy – yeah, Cool Hand Luke George Kennedy), chaos ensues instantly. Within seconds, it is made clear that Lynn, above all, is to blame for all of the family’s problems. It’s her fault that Paul beat her in front of their kids, forcing her to leave him. It’s her fault that she and Patty detest one another. It’s her fault that her oldest daughter, Alice cuts herself and refuses to speak to her father. It’s her fault that her son, Elliot, is a drug abusing, backtalk smacking, manic depressive who steals, beats, and lies to get whatever he wants whenever he wants it.
The litany of blame Lynn receives comes from all angles. Her sisters, brothers-in-law, parents, kids, friends, whoever. The funny (or interesting, or sad, or pathetic) thing about this dynamic is that Lynn, we soon realize, is the only sane person in her entire family. She never pokes or pries, she never mocks or makes fun, she’s a middle-aged woman trying to grasp why her family despises her. Of all the things Lynn is blamed for in the film, she is not responsible for any of them. This is a battered woman who has done nothing but try to do good and instill peace. And this is precisely why Ellen Barkin’s performance deserves as much unhinged, unadulterated praise as is possible.
George Clooney’s character in The Descendants tells his cousin at one point that he’s, “just trying to keep [his] head above water.” Fella, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
To say Lynn is the best performance of Barkin’s career is faint praise. To say, other than Michael Fassbender in Shame, that it is the best performance I saw in 2011, issues some level of justice, but not nearly enough. As Lynn, Barkin made me laugh, she made me cry; she moved me, she bruised me. But, as is usually the case, she had a little help.
Start with Levinson’s brutally honest script, segments of which felt as if they were extracted directly from my life, which isn’t to say my family is remotely as crazy as the one Levinson depicts, but there is a frank sense of humanity in his words that most anyone can relate to.
As the quiet, implosive Alice, Kate Bosworth demonstrates emotional intensity that I didn’t know she was capable of. Same goes for Demi Moore, who takes a prissy desperate housewife roll and turns it into something astonishing. Thomas Haden Church has been good, but never this good. Just watch as Paul admits in front of most of the family that he did indeed abuse Lynn. The family’s reaction will break your heart.
I’ve heard criticism that Ezra Miller is making a career playing the same character. That his Elliot is a lot like his quiet, confused Robert from Afterschool, or his tormented, psychotic Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin. I couldn’t disagree more. The similarity of the characters is caused by one thing: the directors of these films aren’t afraid to show how teenagers really act. Or, perhaps more accurately, how teenagers can act. Teenagers are often plagued with heavy, depressing thoughts, and they are capable of committing horrific acts for reasons they don’t understand. Miller is a master at exposing this. The kid is 18 and has already accomplished more than some actors three times his age.
I’m honestly not able to comment on other aspects of the film. Its score, cinematography, editing – everything is simple and direct, no gimmicks, no tricks. Fact is, I was too taken by the content and the actors to pay attention to anything else. Another Happy Day is something of a miracle, hidden in limited release hell, but waiting patiently for you OnDemand. I cannot speak highly enough of this film. It demands to be seen. A