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Happiness Runs -- Film Review

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The kids are not all right, and neither are the grown-ups, in "Happiness Runs," an overwrought and undernourished drama set amid the indulgence and emotional wreckage of a rural commune founded in the 1960s.

"Based on a true story" -- that of writer-director Adam Sherman, who grew up in such a nonconformist environment -- the film centers on the community's first born-and-raised generation as they come of age.

Bereft of leavening humor, character complexity or real insight but packed with artsy visuals, this look at the dark side of utopia, which opens Friday in New York and a week later in Los Angeles, is so heavy with portent that it quickly grows leaden.

In his first feature, Sherman is very much working things out -- or at lest venting about them. With the help of his production team, he creates a strong sense of place and atmosphere and peoples it with damaged characters. But he doesn't know what to do with them as he moves toward the story's heavily foreshadowed conclusion.

The filmmaker's alter ego and supposed rooting interest, Victor (Mark L. Young), a young man determined to leave the hellish paradise, is, like most everyone here, too blank to generate viewer involvement.

All the adults in the finger-pointing narrative are self-absorbed and toxically deluded, and the only intelligence they exhibit is used to manipulate and control. They're potentially more interesting than the kids, but seen only briefly. As the group's guru and chief hypnotist, Insley, Rutger Hauer exudes New Age charisma and creepiness. Victor's wealthy mother (Andie MacDowell) holds court from her bed, where she writes checks that help keep the commune afloat. His father (Mark Boone Junior, compelling in his fleeting screen time) brandishes such words as "whither" and "whilst" as though they were sabers. His only advice to his son is that he should look forward to the grown-up privilege of sleeping with a different woman every night.

The essentially abandoned children are inarticulate and given to prodigious drug use. Becky (Hanna Hall), the object of Victor's affection, satisfies a voracious appetite for sex and inebriants. In a film filled with troubled spirits, she's the sacrificial lamb, and with obvious symbolism dons angel wings for a costume party.

Despite fine earthbound details (the ubiquitous wind chimes), Sherman spends considerable energy on grainy nightmare sequences that only accentuate the story's shapelessness. By the time he introduces such elements as a gun and a horrendous act of animal cruelty, they're just unconvincing plot points in this pained rant.

Opens: Friday, May 7 (New Tork); Friday, May 14 (Los Angeles) (Strand Releasing)
Production: A Happiness Runs
Cast: Mark L. Young, Hanna Hall, Shiloh Fernandez, Jesse Plemons, Laura Peters, Andie MacDowell, Rutger Hauer, Mark Boone Junior
Screenwriter-director: Adam Sherman
Executive producer: Tatiana Kelly
Producer: Stephen Israel
Director of photography: Aaron Platt
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Music: Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
Co-producer: Mikal P. Lazarev
Costume designer: Emily Baston. Editor: Jonathan Alberts
No rating, 89 minutes