In order to cope with his mother’s failing health and its effect that her condition will come to have on her appearance, Stan (skilfully portrayed by Robin L’Houmeau) dons a disguise and infiltrates a series of therapy sessions for people with facial disfigurements. It’s not long before he’s found out but as he’s about to be booted from the group, he presents the proposition that he should be allowed to stay and in return he will teach them how to use their differences as a weapon against a society which literally doesn’t want to face them.
Firstly, I’d like to point out that Happy Face is much more a confrontational drama than an outright horror piece, although there’s an abundance of horrific behaviour from the more “beautiful” members of society who should really know better. If you don’t come out of this movie thinking how you should be more of an ally then you’re either a saint or a liar.
Alexandre Franchi’s film scores in a huge way by casting actors with genuine disfigurements. The same story with people under layers of prosthetics would have felt fraudulent in the extreme. Also, these characters are not presented at angels. They’re real. They’re sad, they’re funny, they’re witty, they’re angry. Their physical flaws are matched by their psychological ones and their inability to be seen as normal has damaged them in various heart-breaking ways.
Everyone in the therapy group is given the time and the space to develop over the course of the story and, although Stan’s approach to making his newly found acquaintances feel better about themselves is hardly revolutionary, the central idea leads to a number of sequences in which the viewer will both root and fear for these generally gentle souls.
This extends to therapy group leader Vanessa, played by Debbie Lynch-White, whose struggles of her own in terms of body image loom large over her goal of putting on a swimming costume and ignoring what everyone may be thinking about her when she visits the local pool.
It’s a finely-honed performance: Vanessa’s own doubts about her appearance provide her with all the tools she believes she needs to connect with the group but she’s neither part of the world a handsome teen such as Stan resides in or genuinely experiences the almost constant level of inhumane revulsion reserved for those she’s attempting to help.
Similarly, the group is a brilliant ensemble of warm, complimentary turns from a set of players whom it’s easy to instantly latch on to. They’re lovable in their own individual way and spending time with them makes all of the times they’re treated like monsters by their fellow men progressively much harder to take. You want them to fight back, you want them to show those supposedly normal types that they’re the truly ugly ones because their ugliness is all on the inside.
A huge shout out to the wonderful Alison Midstokke as the realistic but still ambitious Maggue, to E.R. Ruiz as the mostly cool but occasionally volatile Jocko, to Cyndy Nicholsen as the sweet, caring Buck and to David Roche as Otis, a wonderfully spiky character who isn’t especially keen on Stan from minute one but finds mutual ground with the outwardly cocky youngster through their frequent clashes.
There are touchpoints from Don Quixote, which Stan is reading, concerning the beauty of the body and the soul and a subplot involving the Dungeons and Dragons game he’s playing introduces the concept of how transformation is just that. It doesn’t have to be a good or a bad thing and sometimes it’s necessary in order to push forward. Happy Face doesn’t aim to introduce complex philosophical arguments but it gives enough food for thought without getting in the way of the human drama, which is far more urgent, interesting and oddly suspenseful.
Happy Face isn’t the easiest of films to watch. Its subject matter hits hard, even though it’s delivered with as light a touch as it’s able to. Rarely have I felt as fearful for characters undertaking a series of tasks that would be considered mundane for so many of us. You’re suddenly in a world where ordering a drink at a bar can be a terrifying thing and when you’re plunged into that kind of environment, it’s a slap across the face and a reminder of just how fucking lucky you are.
Chances are that Happy Face will make you shed tears of both joy and despair and although a fairy tale ending is wisely avoided, there’s enough hope in those final scenes to make the viewer think that things can indeed be better, especially if we all take the time to treat the surface for exactly what it is and look deeper.
I urge you to see this. You’ll know exactly why when you do.