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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The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.