H is for Happiness
Daisy Axon, Wesley Patten, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth, Joel Jackson, Deborah Mailman, Miriam Margolyes, George Shevtsov
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…incredibly generous hearted, embracing the rich, the poor, the normal, the damaged, the eccentric, the humanity in equal measure.
Winner of the 2019 CinefestOZ prize ($100k, thank you very much), H is for Happiness is the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy. Girl Asleep from 2015 also won the prize, and was the first feature from celebrated theatre maker, Rosemary Myers. Both films were about a girl going through puberty, the awkwardness, obsessing over appearance, and starting to be attracted to the opposite sex. The similarities go beyond this premise alone, and are uncanny in fact, though H is for Happiness is a superior film.
Girl Asleep started off with a bang, establishing a very strong style, which unfortunately went awry in its third act’s turn to the surreal. In H is for Happiness, the film’s style is initially clunky, as each scene is presented without enough connecting tissue or cinematic style, but thankfully, as the film progresses, and the characters build, so does the audience engagement.
Candice Phee (impressive newcomer Daisy Axon) is full of life, smart and nerdy. She’s happy in her skin, even though the cool kids look down on her. When new kid in school Douglas Benson (adorable Wesley Patton) turns up and sits next to Candice, sparks eventually fly, and the two become inseparable. The ever-chirpy Candice also has a challenging home environment, with a tragedy clouding over her dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and especially her mum Claire (Emma Booth). On top of all this, Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) loves Candice but has been ousted by the family for a deal gone wrong.
As per the title, an assignment has been set at school by eccentric Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes), in which students must take a letter of the alphabet and create a presentation around it. Candice makes it her mission to make her family happy again.
Sheedy’s inexperience in cinema (his only effort behind the camera is the 2017 short film Mrs McCutcheon) is evident, making the early scenes especially uncinematic, despite the premise’s potential, the beautiful locations (Albany, WA), cinematography (Bonnie Elliott – Slam, Palm Beach) and production design (Nicki Gardiner). However, the source material, Barry Jonsberg’s book My Life as an Alphabet adapted by Lisa Hoppe, means that the spine is strong enough to sustain your interest, and build your investment in the characters, performed expertly by the cast, including small turns from Deborah Mailman and WA legend George Shevtsov (Love Serenade).
Unlike Girl Asleep, H is for Happiness plays much younger, and should appeal to family audiences (lookie here, it’s not even the end of January and we have a second local family film to embrace), despite slightly dark themes. It is generous hearted, embracing the rich, the poor, the normal, the damaged, the eccentric, the full breadth of humanity. Life in Australia may look idyllic but it isn’t neat and tidy, and out of the optimistic hopes of its damaged young heroes emerges true happiness, and an ending that will have you sailing away to another world.