The Happy Sad: Outfest Review

"The Happy Sad"
This saucy sexual roundelay cries out for a deeper treatment of provocative contemporary themes.

Director Rodney Evans takes a look at bisexuality and open relationships in New York.

At a time when gay relationships are more widely accepted and even sanctioned, bisexuality may be the last taboo, less understood even within the gay community. That makes one of this year’s Outfest offerings, The Happy Sad, especially timely. Director Rodney Evans, who made a strong impression with the film Brother to Brother a decade ago, continues to explore African-American gay relationships in a novel way. The film won’t make major waves at the box office when it opens next month, but it’s a tantalizing picture of some contemporary conundrums.

The film focuses on two couples in New York. Aaron (Charlie Barnett) and Marcus (LeRoy McClain) are two black men struggling with the challenges of an open relationship. They are contrasted to a white straight couple, Annie (Sorel Carradine) and Stan (Cameron Scoggins), who are going through some of the same turmoil. While Stan hopes to deepen their relationship, Annie wants to take a break and try dating again. It turns out that Stan is hiding a bisexual side, and he meets Marcus on an Internet dating site. Their fling challenges both of them. At the same time, Annie enters into a lesbian affair with a fellow teacher (Maria Dizzia).

If it seems overly convenient that both of the ostensibly heterosexual lovers has a gay or bi side, that may have something to do with the theatrical origins of the piece. The Happy Sad is based on a play by Ken Urban, and within the artificial confines of the theater, we accept the conceit that the characters on stage need to connect and interact. But in the more naturalistic medium of film, it’s harder to believe that the characters have so many secrets in common. Their unlikely connections might be easier to buy in a drawing room comedy by Noel Coward than in a realistic film surveying a cross section of contemporary Manhattan.

Nevertheless, if you’re willing to accept the arbitrary nature of the premise, the film offers some entertainment value. It helps that the four actors are attractive and comfortable in their roles. Carradine, the daughter of Keith Carradine, makes an especially strong impression. McClain and Barnett give adroit performances, and Scoggins, who also wrote and performs several songs in the movie, has unmistakable rapport with McClain. Yet the film never probes very deeply into Stan’s sexual confusion. One wonders how his same-sex attraction could have been completely hidden from Annie during the time they spent together. Annie’s flirtation with Mandy, the teacher, seems to emanate more convincingly from boredom and curiosity, but Stan’s bisexual side needs more trenchant exploration. Similarly, while the theme of the messiness of open relationships is promising, the dissection of this dilemma is disappointingly thin.

Some of the best moments in the film are comic, such as the unexpected meeting of the main characters on a subway platform. Annie’s blind dates with other men are also drolly rendered. One wonders if the film might have been more successful as an out-and-out comedy. The happy ending provided for both couples seems too convenient, though it’s clear that some of their confusions are still unresolved. Evans directs energetically, and the personable actors help to keep us involved, but the picture skims stubbornly along the surface.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 16 (Miasma Films)
Cast: LeRoy McClain, Charlie Barnett, Sorel Carradine, Cameron Scoggins, Maria Dizzia, Jamie Harrold, Michael Nathanson
Director: Rodney Evans
Screenwriter: Ken Urban, based on his play
Producers: Rodney Evans, Tory Lenosky, Esra Saydam
Executive producers: Keith Louis Brown, Susan Shopmaker, Ken Urban
Director of photography: Arlene Muller
Production designer: Catherine Taft
Music: Peter Broderick
Costume designer: Courtney Colston
Editors: Rodney Evans, Sabine Hoffman
No rating, 87 minutes