'H Is for Happiness': Film Review

Cyan Films
A candy coating with not much underneath.

An optimistic preteen tries to make everyone as content as she is in John Sheedy's family film.

A cutesy family pic mixing relentless cheer with jarring notes of pre-fab gloom, John Sheedy's H Is for Happiness watches a precocious preteen do her best to cure her family's emotional woes and help a new friend experiment with theoretical physics. The Australian debut film has more than enough commercial gloss to suit families who stumble across it while surfing video options, but it's unlikely many Stateside viewers will seek it out.

Daisy Axon plays Candice, a redhead with freckles and pigtails whose world is aggressively color-coordinated. (You'd need to shop for weeks to find as many green consumer goods as we see here.) She's a would-be teacher's pet with a great vocabulary, but her teacher Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes) seems almost as exasperated with the child as her classmates are.

Then comes Douglas (Wesley Patten), a new student who insists on entrusting Candice with a secret: He's from another dimension. Another thread of the multiverse, that is, shaken into this timeline by an accidental bump on the head. Convinced that a good fall out of a tree will send him home, he keeps diving from higher and higher branches until Candice distracts him with her friendship.

The whimsy here is undercut by frequent jumps back home, where Candice's mother's depression and the ensuing strain with her father are ill-suited to everything else onscreen. The couple had an infant daughter who died a few years ago, and Claire (Emma Booth) never recovered. Jim (Richard Roxburgh), meanwhile, sits in his garage office and sulks, bitter about an old falling out with brother/former business partner Brian (Joel Jackson), unfailingly referred to by Candice as "Rich Uncle Brian."

Rich Uncle Brian isn't really such a bad sort, and Candice often calls on him for help in schemes to fix her world. Knowing how enthusiastic Mom used to be about country music, for instance, she tries to turn the dining room into a surprise honky-tonk (ah, those famous Nashville prawn po'boys!).

The contrast between unflappable optimism and deep grief does not play out comfortably in this world of boosted colors, restless pacing and exaggerated tween naivite. Better is the friendship between Candice and the boy she now refers to only as Douglas Benson from Another Dimension. Not responsible for participating in the film's darker scenes, Patten is free to be the quirky brainiac who doesn't realize his space-time calculations are all bunk. Who cares about string theory, anyway, when you're falling in love?

The young pair's romance is nearly as theoretical as Douglas' interdimensional travel. But it's the closest Happiness comes to a storyline that sustains itself through strung-together diversions like Candice's attempts to be kind to the mean-girl Jen (Alessandra Tognini) or to presumptuously help Miss Bamford do something about her right eye, which roams wildly in its socket and inspires much mockery. This nose-where-it-doesn't-belong routine works out much better in fiction than it would in reality, especially after the requisite heartwarming school-assembly finale.

Production company: Cyan Films
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Daisy Axon, Wesley Patten, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth, Joel Jackson, Miriam Margolyes, Alessandra Tognini
Director: John Sheedy
Screenwriter: Lisa Hoppe
Producers: Lisa Hoppe, Tenille Kennedy, Julie Ryan
Executive producers: Richard East, Bryce Menzies, Jonathan Page, Avrill Stark
Director of photography: Bonnie Elliott
Production designer: Nicki Gardiner
Costume designer: Terri Lamera
Editor: Johanna Scott
Composer: Nerida Tyson-Chew
Casting director: Jane Norris

98 minutes