Happy Sad Man
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…genuinely powerful moments that exist as a hand of outreach.
Cinema is going through a metamorphosis in terms of how it portrays male vulnerability on-screen. Going (if not gone) are the days of the hardened loner being rewarded with a personal breakthrough, in depictions that suggest grief and inner-turmoil are a self-development tool akin to a Tony Robbins conference. For many men, it is not a trope but a deep-seated issue that requires professional treatment.
Director Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven) intimately explores this subject matter in a series of interviews with a variety of men suffering from mental illness in the compassionately told Aussie documentary Happy Sad Man.
Inspired by her friendship with John, a larrikin and self-described ‘first hippie’ on the South East Coast of NSW, Bailey investigates modern masculinity from a grass-roots angle. In particular, she explores a culture of shame felt by men who do not express their emotions; a feat which the filmmakers interrogate with a respectful touch.
Bailey remains empathetic to the hardships of the men being interviewed. The diversity of the subjects – from inner-city progressives to bush folk – provides a relatively comprehensive scope of the issues at large, with the opportunity to explore the experiences of men of colour should a sequel be in the pipeline.
Happy Sad Man glosses over the history behind male toxicity. A smart move keeping the film focused on treatment and not causation. Bailey pushes an agenda of openness and discussion, with the struggles of the interviewees – depression, bipolar, mania, psychosis, suicide – providing an authentic account of the dangers of emotional suppression.
Bailey’s own narration interjects throughout the film, allowing the Director to digest the weight of the subject matter brought on by deeply-personal responses from interviewees. Too easily, this could have detracted, however, Bailey proves an ambitious director that remains laser-focused. Her commitment for betterment imbues Happy Sad Man with an optimistic tone that overpowers any self-serving misinterpretations.
The interviewees are just as dedicated as Bailey in raising awareness of male mental health. ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ and ‘no pain going to the doctor’ some of the many insightful statements spoken throughout Happy Sad Man. It is a film that finds power in giving the compassionate men a platform to offer relatable guidance that doesn’t come across as a PSA. For these men, a large portion of their lives is spent maintaining a balance somewhere between happy and sad, with their treatment (called their ‘recipe’) being put on offer to viewers as a message of solidarity.
Masculinity has taught men to bottle up their emotions so tightly that it proves difficult to re-open. Many films now present progressive attitudes, with recent releases Ad Astra and Good Boys challenging conventions of modern masculinity by highlighting the danger in apathy. Filmmakers should continue to challenge these constructs, with Happy Sad Man delivering genuinely powerful moments that exist as a hand of outreach.
Photo by Shannon Glasson