Fantastic Fest Review: HAPPY FACE Is A Challenging Affront To "Traditional" Beauty
Alexandre Franchi’s powerfully "all-inclusive” sophomore effort, Happy Face, is a challenging affront to the narrow notion of “traditional” beauty that teaches us how to weaponize our subjective flaws. It’s also the most surprising, refreshing, and bizarre ensemble comedy that you’ll likely see all year.
Estranged from his manipulative cancer-stricken mother, a handsome teenage boy, Stan (Robin L’Houmea), deforms his face with bandages and joins a therapy workshop for disfigured patients in a misguided attempt to reconnect with her.
Happy Face wants people to be seen for who they are, not what they look like, and it’s willing to venture into some pretty dark places to drive its point home. No matter how black it gets though, it’s always anchored by a deep sense of empathy that radiates out from its emotional center, and it sees the humanity in all of its characters, even those with morally reprehensible leanings. In our beauty-obsessed world, Happy Face is an rebellious breath of fresh air, which is made all the more refreshing by allowing its visually unique cast to inhabit fully-realized characters.
We meet our gang of facially-different misfits through the therapy workshop led by Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), the workshop’s body-conscious and confidence-lacking leader. The workshop provides the perfect setting for the viewer to quickly and concisely get a feel for the characters, all of whom have relatable flaws and dreams, most of which have nothing to do with the way they look. Those who may initially be on edge by the group’s appearance will quickly be disarmed by their effortless charm and natural humanity — a true testament to power of the film’s terrific cast. While we initially believe e that everyone in the group is who they claim to be, we quickly learn that there’s an imposter in their midst.
That imposter is Stan (Robin L’Houmea), and he’s a pretty average teenager that likes playing D&D with his friends and picking up girls at the bar. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his appearance, but when he’s given the difficult task of taking care of his cancer-stricken mother, he’s unable to bring himself to face her. In an attempt to cope with the disease that’s physically destroying his once-beautiful mother and overcome his overwhelming guilt, he disfigures his face with bandages and joins the group, but he can’t maintain the facade for long.
The workshop quickly learns of Stan’s deception, but instead of kicking him out, they realize that he may be able to help them more than the questionably unstable Vanessa. Stan and Vanessa clash, but eventually they reach an agreement, and Stan becomes a permanent fixture in the group. Under Stan’s guidance, the workshop group — along with Stan and Vanessa — learn how to overcome their inner demons and weaponize their differences against a world that’s hostile towards them, which results in some delightfully hilarious and outrageously unexpected moments.
It strains credibility at times with some of its character choices and motivation, and it loses impact by ending on an oddly ironic note, but despite its flaws, audiences should be able to see Happy Face for what it truly is: a wholly singular experience that’s bursting at the seams with empathy, humanity, emotion, and dark humor. It’s a rarity to find a film that challenges as much as it rewards, all while raising the kinda hell that anyone and everyone can revel in, and Happy Face deserves to be savored.
Recommendation: If you’re someone who appreciates a challenge and are tired of the same old same, you should definitely give this a try, as you might be pleasantly surprised. For fans of the weird and wonderful, this is a no-brainer, must-see.
Rating: 3.5 facial bandages out of 5.
What do you think? Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!