Another Happy Day: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Mandalay Vision
Laugh-laced dark drama of family angst overcomes the hurdle of its wedding-weekend setting.

A family-dysfunction film that walks a fine line, "Another Happy Day" earns its share of dark laughs without ever trivializing the very real pain almost all its characters endure.

PARK CITY -- A family-dysfunction film that walks a fine line, Another Happy Day earns its share of dark laughs without ever trivializing the very real pain almost all its characters endure.

Commercial prospects are solid within the dramatic arena, though ad campaigns leaning too hard on the comic element could lead to disappointed audiences.

First-timer Sam Levinson proves to be a confident and unshowy director, one fortunate to have a skillful cast investing its all in his screenplay. Though some of the movie's performances flirt with caricature (Siobhan Fallon's loud-mouthed aunt, Demi Moore as a brash and overtly sexual second wife), the movie has a center of gravity just strong enough to contain them.

Ellen Barkin plays Lynn, a mother who has made her share of missteps but wasn't dealt a great hand to begin with. Lynn comes very close to collapse (and gets in one actual catfight) while trying to wrangle two troubled sons and a disturbed daughter through an already stressful family event -- her third son, raised by Lynn's estranged husband (Thomas Haden Church, paired with Moore), is getting married at Lynn's parents' Anapolis home. It's a scene promising fraught reunions and grudge-driven friction, particularly between the two women who call the groom "son."

Barkin, who produced the film, has secured for herself a full-tilt role requiring a thousand shades of vulnerable agitation and angry desperation; she's made for the part, and manages to elicit both disapproval and sympathy from the viewer, sometimes simultaneously. But the actress has competition in Ezra Miller, who as Lynn's drug-abusing, emotionally damaged middle son is the movie's sardonic, damaged soul.

The picture is littered with supporting turns that leave their mark, particularly that of Ellen Burstyn, who as Barkin's mother, Doris, typifies the kind of moral ambiguities Levinson's script trades in: When Doris criticizes Lynn's need to make a big deal of every emotional obstacle, she isn't wrong. But the kind of stuff Lynn faces -- an ex who abused her and is still treated sweetly by her mother, a self-harming daughter about to have to encounter him after six years of fearful distance, a son who curses at her and sabotages every attempt at normalcy -- is enough to make anyone crack.

The angsty-wedding film may be its own genre now, and our overfamiliarity with its building blocks make one or two sequences here, especially the post-nuptials toasts and drunken dance-floor action, feel somewhat longer than necessary. But when ante-upping mishaps interrupt the party, Levinson is firmly back in control -- playing both grief and relief with a similar restraint, and refusing to milk the action for the cheap catharsis typically seen in these we're-all-messed-up-together affairs.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production company: Mandalay Vision
Cast: Ellen Barkin, Ezra Miller, Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, George Kennedy, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Nardelli
Director-screenwriter: Sam Levinson
Producers: Ellen Barkin, Pamela Lynn Fielder, Peter Guber, Johnny Lin, Michael Nardelli, Salli Newman, Celine Rattray, Todd Traina
Executive producers: Bill Brady, William T. Conway, Cynthia Coury, Peter Crane, Caroline Kaplan, Elana Krausz, Sean McEwen
Director of photography: Ivan Strasburg
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Music: Olafur Arnalds
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Editor: Ray Hubley
Sales: CAA
No rating, 118 minutes