How did writer/director Sam Levinson, at a mere 26 years old, manage to nab some of the biggest names in Hollywood for his directorial début, “Another Happy Day”?
Some may call it beginner’s luck. But the folks over at Sundance, who awarded Levinson the coveted Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, would disagree.
And they were right. The script is actually that good.
Lynn (Ellen Barkin) takes to the road with her three youngest children. Alice (Kate Bosworth), the daughter from her first marriage, has responded to her parent’s divorce with six years of self-mutilation. Eliot (Ezra Miller) is smart aleck 17-year-old just out of his last stint in rehab. While her youngest son, Ben (Daniel Yelsky), suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and often serves as the film’s constant, uninhibited voice to describe any situation just as he sees it.
Part witty comedy of unlikely personalities brought together by a son’s wedding and part pointed introspection on the inner workings of the modern American family, “Another Happy Day” manages to alternate effortlessly between well-placed one-liners and intense scenes showing Lynn’s life — as well as the lives of those around her — always on the verge of unraveling.
Lynn’s ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Haden Church), wants contact with Alice during the wedding, which puts an overprotective Lynn on edge, fearing the contact will affect the depressive Alice in damaging ways. The wedding will mark the first time Paul’s seen his college-aged daughter, since her mother left him when Alice was just a child. In the meantime, Paul maintained custody of Alice’s older brother Dylan, the film’s groom-to-be.
Feelings of inadequacy emerge as Lynn must celebrate the wedding of the son she did not raise, who arguably turned out the most mentally stable of her four children, while Paul tries to create a relationship with a daughter he’s not been allowed to know.
The way the comedy weaves back and forth with piercing dramatic scenes echoes the structure of the family itself: everyone has good intentions, but when it comes down to it, they make each other miserable.
The delicate treatment of character and plot creates an added sense of intensity: before long it’s hard to know whom to root for. In this war over who is the most entitled to feel victimized by the family, everyone is both the accuser and the accused.
And maybe this emphasis on allowing even the less likable characters to have elements worthy of compassion is the secret to depicting the broken modern family that Levinson was so closely able to nail. This is even true in the case of Paul’s new wife Patty (Demi Moore), who serves as an antagonist to Lynn, but at the same time must grapple with the fact that Dylan isn’t really her son. He will always share something with Lynn that she can’t.
Creating emotionally honest characters is enough of a feat, but the real treat of “Another Happy Day,” is the film is also often laugh-out-loud funny. The well-timed dialogue, even in the hands of the film’s younger actors, eases the viewer out of scenes that are really intense.
Fragile characters that always seem on the verge of breaking down encounter domestic violence, drug abuse and the very real fear of feeling like a failure as a parent. Yet, within minutes we’ll be laughing at another perfect one-liner, often a quip by Eliot targeted at his Fox-News-watching grandfather. The able cast knows just how to hit the right notes.
It’d be impossible to do this through exposition. Even amidst lines of comedy, the vulnerability is all still right there on the screen, especially in the character of Eliot, who’s both a smartass and a depressive, and we’re never sure which way he might go.
And this same tension can be found in all of Levinson’s characters: the uneasy sense that at any minute we can go from laughs to crisis. Yet, the audience is never left uneasy for long enough to not have a good time.
In the end, it’s Levinson’s talent for pacing that maintains the effortless transitions between humor and drama that make “Another Happy Day” not just another mediocre film. If this is Levinson warming up, then he’s definitely a young director to keep an eye out for.Contact Susan Kemp.