The Happys (2016)

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Today’s cinema adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

There’s no shortage of movies about fresh-faced out-of-towners coming to “the big city” to make all their dreams come true, only to have their naiveté stripped away by a few hard knocks from harsh reality.   In a substantial percentage of those movies, the big city in question is, of course, Hollywood.

With so many such films already out there, it’s undoubtedly hard for any filmmaker to come up with a new angle on the subject.  Typically, even the good ones are predictable.

Going into “The Happys,” a new film about a young Wisconsin girl who moves to L.A. with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-fiancé after he is cast in a major Hollywood film, one might expect the same familiar patterns to be played out yet again.

At first it seems like pretty standard stuff; but writer/directors Tom Gould and John Serpe throw us a new twist almost immediately, when Tracy (Amanda Bauer) comes home to the couple’s new Los Feliz rental and catches Mark (Jack DePew) having sex with another man.  The two decide to stay together – they are too enraptured by their happily-ever-after fantasy to let it go; but though this seems to go well, at first, Tracy grows restless.  She begins to explore the local culture, developing a fondness for food trucks and striking up an intriguing new friendship with a reclusive neighbor (Rhys Ward).  Meanwhile, Mark finds himself struggling not only to keep his repressed sexuality from jeopardizing his relationship, but also from derailing his career in homophobic Hollywood before it has even begun.

Such a set-up could go in a lot of different directions.  “The Happys” could have been anything from slapstick comedy to bleak tragedy, but Gould and Serpe have chosen a middle path, and it suits their film admirably.

Establishing its identity squarely from the beginning as a “dramedy” with a comfortably quirky indie flavor, it floats between seriousness and humor at about the same levels found in your average rom-com.  It honors the struggles of its flawed characters by taking them seriously and treating them with fairness and dignity, but it’s not afraid of poking a little fun at their foibles, also.

It pushes furthest towards the direction of outright parody in its treatment of the movie business (an establishment which serves, after all, as the story’s only real antagonist) – but here, too, it works hard to avoid passing judgment.  Even Mark’s brass-balls agent (Melissa McBride), who pushes him to stay in the closet and use his girlfriend as a beard, is depicted with relative sympathy; she is, after all, only another cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine.

“The Happys,” for all its overtures towards satire, is less interested in ridiculing the status quo than it is in overcoming it.  It gives us stereotypes we think we know – the devoted girlfriend who defines herself through her relationship, the closeted pretty-boy terrified of being found out, the mysterious recluse with a secret and a heart of gold – and makes of them a little community, letting them discover more about themselves through their interactions with each other and the larger world.  In the process, it opens them up and allows us to see parts of ourselves in each one of them.

In this way it bears more than a passing resemblance, both in form and in spirit, to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”  Just as that book does with San Francisco, it revels in its Los Feliz setting (the film’s title is a reference to it), making the neighborhood itself into a character and ensuring plenty of enjoyment for locals who will recognize many of the locations.  There’s even an eccentric landlady – a former child star played to perfection by Janeane Garofalo – who acts as a sort of den mother, passing on wisdom and neighborhood history to her little family of renters.

It carries a similar message, too.  Each of its characters starts their journey with an identity dictated by outside expectations and spends the rest of the movie learning to recognize and embrace who they really are.  As one of the film’s minor characters sums it up, “the closer you get to your true self, the happier you are.”  One can imagine Mrs. Madrigal saying those exact same words.

“The Happys” inhabits a more confined space than “Tales,” though, with fewer characters, a less sprawling landscape (both geographically and culturally), and a lot less time to win us over.  As a result, some of it feels a little hasty; revelations come too quickly, as do realizations and reconciliations, and some of the plot contrivances stretch the willing suspension of disbelief a little too far (an unknown newbie actor from the Midwest landing a lead in an A-list Hollywood movie is just the first of several implausible plot points).

Still, it’s a movie with a lot of heart, along with a worthy and much-needed agenda.  Gould and Serpe address the issue of homophobia without being preachy or confrontational, opting instead to treat it with kindness and candor.  Mark, though he may be callous and dishonest, is also broken and unhappy, and the fact that we are led to empathize with him and even root for him raises this movie above the level of the many less-sincere attempts to confront such characters onscreen.

Likewise, in Tracy, the movie gives us a strong female protagonist whose growth from subservient mouse to independent woman presents her at every stage as a likeable, understandable person – not just some caricature of femininity.

Both these characters work, despite the occasional elision of their arcs, thanks to their heartfelt performances.  Bauer, in particular, gives a strong performance, carrying the bulk of the movie on her shoulders and making it look good as she does so.  The whole cast, in fact, does nice work.  Garofalo is a treat, as is McBride; Arturo del Puerto brings good-natured charm (as well as a dash of diversity, something the movie could have done better at including) as Ricky, a flirtatious Latino food truck operator; and young out actor Brian Jordan Alvarez has some memorable scenes as one of Mark’s co-stars, contrasting his openly gay persona against DePew’s tightly guarded artiface.

There are times in Gould and Serpe’s film when one wants it to go further – to sharpen its satirical teeth and bite harder into the toxic hypocrisy of the Hollywood system or to shine a harsher light on the psychology of the closet; but that’s okay.

Thanks the sincerity and positivity of its intentions, it offers up so many sweet and life-affirming moments that it is easy to forgive it for not making a deeper dive.

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Freak Show (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

Not so long ago, there was a tremendous need for movies that told the stories of LGBTQ young people.

The need is still there, of course; but in recent years, as queer moviemakers have emerged from the shadows of a cultural landscape that had long suppressed them, we have seen a bountiful crop of such films.

The latest is “Freak Show,” the directorial feature debut of Trudie Styler.  Adapted by screenwriters Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, from the book of the same name by James St. James, it’s the story of a fabulously non-conforming teen-ager named Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther).

Raised under the sheltering wing of his glamorous and supportive mother (Bette Midler), Billy has grown up comfortable in his own gender-bending skin; but when she sends him to stay with his no-nonsense father (Larry Pine), he finds himself thrust into the deeply oppressive world of an ultra-conservative high school where his confrontationally androgynous fashion sense and ever-ready Oscar Wilde quips are not only out-of-place, but dangerously unwelcome.   Though he’s not without allies (including, surprisingly, “Flip,” the popular quarterback of the football team) – he finds himself the target of relentless ridicule and bullying.  Making a stand against the school’s power elite, he declares his candidacy for the coveted title of homecoming queen – drawing the ire of head cheerleader and “queen bee,” Lynette.

It’s a story ripped right out of the pages of any number of small town newspapers; there have been countless real-life iterations of this tale, and in our current era of emboldened homophobia there will doubtless be many more.

Despite its relevance to modern times, though, “Freak Show” comes across as oddly dated, even a bit nostalgic.  It may be the movie’s tone; reminiscent of a John Hughes-esque teen adventure from the eighties, in which the painful politics of high school life provide the backdrop for a heart-tugging saga of youthful self-actualization, it feels like the product of a bygone era.

It might also be that, in the still-churning wake of the 2016 election, the premise of the film – that proud self-expression is enough to overcome ignorance and bigotry within a culture where it thrives – feels a little naïve, like a painful reminder of a dream that, while perhaps not crushed, has certainly been deferred.

It may also simply be a function of the script; though Clifton and Rigazio hit all their marks, the execution is a bit clunky and more than a little slavish to formula.  Revelations are too predictable, reconciliations too easy, resolutions too perfunctory – it all seems to be taken by rote, and consequently it feels like something we’ve seen before.

Likewise, Styles direction, polished as it may be, does little to inject freshness.  She provides a safe, standard cinematic structure for the story; and when flights of fancy are called for, though she delivers them with style and flash, they never quite connect us with the kind of visceral human experience that would make them truly relatable.  One standout exception comes with the harrowing sequence – brilliantly accompanied by the defiantly brash Perfume Genius song, “Queen” — in which Billy, dressed like a ghost bride at a midnight wedding, is savagely attacked by a gang of masked bullies.  It’s suitable that this moment should be delivered with such potency – but one can’t help but wish the rest of the film vibrated with more of that same creative vision.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing here to surprise or delight us – indeed, St. James’ original story has a powerful voice and a lot of heart, both of which come through in the little moments that pave the way between the “big events” of the story – and especially through its charismatic hero.

Billy is bigger than life and twice as fierce, a character that demands an actor up to the task of bringing him to life.  Lawther is a perfect match for the part; he exudes the blend of confidence and fragility needed to make his journey believable, embraces the high theatricality of his personality, and infuses him with the humanity that allows us to love him.  It’s a performance that would shine in any film; in “Freak Show,” it positively glows.

There are some nice turns from the rest of the cast, too, though they have less to work with.  Midler, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, is an appropriately strong presence as Billy’s mother; it’s hard to imagine a less on-the-nose choice of actress for the role.  Also notable is the less showy Celia Weston, who, as dad’s longtime housekeeper, provides a more down-to-earth kind of nurturing presence for Billy.  Nelson is likable but unremarkable as Flip, and Breslin delivers a sly caricature of toxic femininity as Lynette.  Lastly, there is a much-appreciated appearance by Lavern Cox as a news reporter who comes to interview the candidates in the controversial homecoming campaign.

It’s obvious that “Freak Show” is a project undertaken with a strong sense of purpose.  Its message of empowerment – not just for queer young people, but for all those who are marginalized by the cookie-cutter ideal of conformity that pervades our society – is presented with sincerity and conviction, no matter how clumsily it may sometimes be delivered.  It addresses the issue of bullying with unflinching honesty.  It promotes the ideal of a diverse and inclusive society, while still extending compassion – mostly – to those who have not yet evolved enough to embrace it.

With such good intentions behind it, one can’t help but wonder how great a film this might have been with a more expert set of hands to guide it to the screen.

That, of course, will be a moot point to the movie’s target audience; LGBTQ teens, thirsty for a story and characters that reflect their own experiences, will be unburdened by comparisons to older material or quibbles about cinematic structure.  For them, the story of Billy Bloom is likely to be a wonderful thing, and rightly so.

“Freak Show” may not be a great film, but it’s a good movie; and for a world badly in need of its message of acceptance, that’s good enough.