'Happy Face': Film Review

Happy Face
Courtesy of Film
Empathetic and refreshingly unpreachy.

An imposter joins a support group for unusual-looking people in Alexandre Franchi's drama.

An advocacy drama that doesn't forget it needs to tell an interesting story in order to win viewers over, Alexandre Franchi's Happy Face sometimes risks going too far in its tale of a support group for disfigured people: Though Franchi and cowriter Joelle Bourjolly have thought their metaphors through, they might have picked, say, either Cervantes or Dungeons & Dragons as a window into the trials of those who feel like monsters. The occasional screenwriting surplus aside, this modest production largely succeeds, making the most of performers — some established actors, some first-timers — who come as they are: Instead of FX makeup, they wear the real results of disease, birth defects and violent mishaps; if we're surprised by their ease in front of the camera, it's likely because we've spent our lives averting our gaze from people like them. Imperfect but affecting, the pic leaves one hoping these performers will find more opportunities to play real characters on screen.

It may initially be disappointing to learn that the film's main character is not one of these people, but a good-looking kid with no visible deformities. Stan (Robin L'Houmeau) has disguised himself, pretending he's badly disfigured in order to join this newly formed group. Considering how vulnerable other members make themselves, it's a shocking betrayal of trust, but Stan has his reasons. Though he doesn't mean what he seems to, he's revealing a truth when he tells the group, "I'm disgusting."

The sessions' leader, Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), is also a participant. Allegedly a therapist (her lack of professionalism plays not as a character choice, but as a screenwriting misstep), she plans to use cognitive behavioral therapy to overcome patients' fear of dealing with others. While other participants may be missing a nose, have distractingly lopsided faces or be covered in tiny bubble-like tumors caused by neurofibromatosis, she herself suffers a commonplace "disfigurement": She's fat. Remembering what it was like to be thin and pretty, she's more able than the others to hope for a future of healthy interactions with ordinary people.

Scenes in which they sit in a circle comparing their experiences sometimes (as with Buck, played by Cindy Nicholsen) draw on real life, and in other cases are purely fictional. Otis, for instance, whose face is deformed in several ways, is painfully shy and quick to pull away from social risk-taking; but David Roche, who plays him, is an "inspirational humorist" with a thriving public-speaking career.

The film could've offered three times as much of this material without suffering from it. But Franchi and Bourjolly quickly disrupt things by exposing Stan's deception, launching parallel storylines. In one, we watch him struggle to confront his mother's terminal illness, using this group as both therapy and distraction. In another, we see him play friendly instigator in the group, suggesting more provocative exercises than those Vanessa assigns. While the script occasionally gives him distractingly implausible insights into others' behavior, the ensemble's chemistry keeps us from minding too much. It's too big a pleasure to see these new friends attempting to bring their inner selves into the open.

Like Don Quixote or the D&D character he plays with his friends, Stan has a mission, and he needs more help than he can admit. The film moves briskly even when his own pace falters, playing disparate elements together more successfully than one might expect. And despite dealing with a truckload of grief, isolation and heartbreak, Happy Face finds a resolution that's optimistic enough to justify its name.

Production companies: Les Films de la Mancha, Line & Content
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures (Available Friday, January 1 in theaters and Tuesday, January 5 on digital and VOD)
Cast: Robin L'Houmeau, Debbie Lynch-White, David Roche, Alison Midstokke, E.R. Ruiz, Noemie Kocher, Cyndy Nicholsen
Director: Alexandre Franchi
Screenwriters: Joelle Bourjolly, Alexandre Franchi
Producers: Alexandre Franchi, Stephane Gerin-Lajoie
Executive producer: Ester Velasco
Director of photography: Claudine Sauve
Production designer: Valerie-Jeanne Mathieu
Costume designer: Mohamed Al Naimi
Editors: Hubert Hayaud, Amelie Labreche
Composer: Gabriel Scotti
Casting directors: Nadia Rona, Vera Miller

97 minutes